The former things have passed away… Behold, I make all things new (Rev. 21:4-5)

Archive for June, 2011

The Feast of the Church

[The following is a homily I gave in 2002 for the feast of SS Peter and Paul.]

Why do we celebrate Saints Peter and Paul with such elaborate Offices, why do the Byzantine Churches make this day a holy day of obligation?  This is quite extraordinary, since no other saint, short of the Mother of God, has such an obligation attached to any of their feasts.  Is it because they are great martyrs?  Well, no, because all the apostles, except probably John, were martyrs.  Is it because they left us with many biblical writings?  Well, St. Paul wrote quite a bit, but St. Peter wrote very little.  Is it because they were high-profile leaders of the early Church?  Well, that’s not it either, because there were other high-profile leaders of the early Church, like St. James for example, and he doesn’t get a holy day of obligation.  So, it’s basically because these two men give us, through their lives, and especially through the readings that the Church provides today (Mt. 16:13-19; 2Cor. 11:21 – 12:9), an insight into the essence of the Church.  And that is why, in some places in the Office, we say: this is the feast of the Church.  That’s probably why this feast is a day of obligation.  The Church says: this is the feast of the Church, and so you should come to the Liturgy.

So let’s look a little bit at the readings and see some of the points that make these two apostles stand out as icons of the Church, elements of their lives that show us what the Church is about.  I found four—and they’re not “one, holy, catholic and apostolic.”   That’s something else.  Those are the four “marks” of the Church. But there are other elements, and they are: faith, leadership, asceticism, and mysticism.  Those are four important elements of what the Church is and that we find in these readings.  We’ll look first at the gospel, which is chosen for St. Peter.

The first, and foundational, mystery here is faith.  Peter’s bold profession of faith in Christ was recognized by Jesus as being a divine revelation.  It wasn’t something that Peter arrived at by logical deduction or reasoning, because Christ said: This has come to you by revelation from my Heavenly Father, this faith that you have, that I am the Son of the Living God.  Then Jesus said: Now, I build my Church on you, the rock, you who have professed this faith, that’s what my Church is going to be built on.  And so, the foundation of everything, of the whole Church, is faith—faith in Christ as the Son of God, faith in the Holy Trinity, faith in everything that God has revealed to us, especially through Christ, especially the whole history of salvation; that’s the bedrock, the foundation of the Church.

The next point is the leadership or authority that was entrusted to Peter and given to the Church.  For Jesus said: I give to you the keys of the Kingdom, so whatever you bind is held bound in Heaven and whatever you loose is loosed in Heaven.  This is not merely a sort of legal or external kind of power, to be able to impose things on people, but it’s a principle of leadership for the Church, an example to be set for the sake of the proper functioning, unity, and harmony within the Church, and also keeping the Church free from error and other junk that creeps in and has to be dealt with by the legitimate authority.   It’s not a canon law thing, because, as we heard in the Office today, Peter was given the keys of grace!   That puts another dimension to it, because this ministry of authority is also the sacramental ministry of the Church, and so the Church regulates the worship of Christ, and the administration and celebration of the sacraments.  Thus it’s not just a legal power, but it’s also a ministry of grace, of the grace of the sacraments.

We have seen that the foundation is faith, and that the authority or leadership is the external structure that’s built on that foundation of faith.  But then, when we come to St. Paul, we go into the interior of the Church, of that edifice built on faith, and that’s where we find the elements of asceticism and mysticism.

First of all, St. Paul goes through all of his sufferings that he endured for the sake of Christ.  These are more or less external sufferings, like getting beaten and shipwrecked and dealing with robbers and traitors and stuff like that, but in other lists of his trials and tribulations he also mentions things like fasting and vigils and other things that are more properly seen as ascetical practices.  But the whole picture of sacrifice and suffering for Christ comes under that broad concept of asceticism, of training as a soldier, as an athlete of Christ.  This is an important aspect: the spiritual discipline and the ability to endure hardship for the sake of Christ.  That is very important, and that is where the martyrs have sprung from, that charism in the Church, because they endured trials to the end, to the final witness, that nothing could stand in the way of their profession of faith and their loyalty to the revelation of God in Christ.

Finally, and most deeply perhaps, is the element of mysticism.  The Church will not survive without her mystics, without those—and we should all be among them, at least to some extent—who enter personally, deeply, into the experience of God, and have that profound relationship to Him.  The Church can otherwise degenerate into just an empty shell, an empty edifice, a building with no heart, no warmth, just a monolithic power structure—God forbid!  This is the Bride of Christ, and the Bride must have that intimate relation with Him.

St. Paul talks about his own experience, at least to some extent; he talks about it in a sort of oblique way: “I know somebody who had this experience”—well, of course, he’s talking about himself—someone who was taken up into Paradise, who experienced things beyond all telling, beyond all ability to tell, and entered into the heart of that mystery which has to sustain the rest of the Church’s life and functioning, and her whole sacramental life and moral and charitable life.  That element of mysticism is very important.  And, really, underlying everything that we’ve just said about the elements of the Church that the apostles represent and manifest as icons, is—we go back now to the Gospel at Matins, and to Peter:  “Simon, do you love Me?”  That’s the bottom line.  That’s really the heartbeat of the Church.  If there’s no love, then the rest of the stuff doesn’t matter.  The power of the keys doesn’t matter; the struggles and the labors don’t matter; even the faith—you know, St. Paul says, in First Corinthians, “Even if I have faith to move mountains, but don’t have love, I’m still nothing.”  So even faith is nothing without love.  This, then, is the bottom line to the whole mystery of the Church, and if it’s not there, the Church is not there, regardless of how many buildings you have all over the world.

I just read something that’s very interesting—it’s very sobering, but it’s enlightening as well—from Dostoyevsky, about love, and it’s in the context of Hell.  In his book, The Brothers Karamazov, where the elder Zosima is giving his testament, he says, well, what is Hell?   He said: I think that Hell is the suffering of being unable to love.  He goes into some detail about this.  He says: if you have lived your life, rejecting the love of others, refusing to love others—being selfish, and resentful, and angry, and bitter, and not concerned about serving and sacrificing yourself for others—then you’re going to die, and you’re going to be like the rich man in the parable of the rich man and Lazarus.  You’re going to see Abraham afar off, while you are in torment because of this spiritual, burning thirst for love that you cannot anymore satisfy.  You’re going to realize when you die, that the whole meaning of life was to love, and that you rejected it, you lost it.  But when you finally see the truth, when you’ve passed that border and you have already stood before God, then you know that life is about love and nothing else, ultimately. Then, you’re going to see that that is what you really want, and now you can’t have it, because you’ve cut yourself off from it.  And he said the reason is, you’re going to find yourself in a position when you die, that you can no longer sacrifice yourself for love, you can no longer suffer for the sake of love, you can no longer give of yourself—actively, personally—for love, because that opportunity is gone!  That opportunity was your earthly life; you had the opportunity.  And that, he says, is what was the drop of water the suffering soul asked Abraham for: give me another chance, give me one more minute of earthly life in which I can love somebody, and quench this burning thirst for love, that I cannot any longer quench, and that I have to be stuck with for all eternity.

So, let us, as members of the Church, the Body of Christ, along with our faith, with our sacramental life, with our ascetical struggles, with our longing for mystical union with God, let us learn how to love, and let us put it into practice, because that’s going to be the bottom line; that’s going to be what matters.  I cannot even imagine how horrible that would be, that suffering. Dostoyevsky even says: I don’t know if there’s a material fire in Hell, but if there is, the souls would be glad of it, because it would, for a while, take their mind off the spiritual fire, which is much worse.  So, we have to take that seriously, and realize that love is what life is about, and if we’re going to be members of the Body of Christ, that’s how we’re going to live.  When we die, then we will see that the love that we shared and received and suffered and sacrificed for in this life will be magnified and blessed and rewarded a million-fold, and we’ll be totally fulfilled, and realize the purpose of our existence—which is, as Christ says, to love God, with your whole heart, and soul, and strength, and your neighbor as yourself.

Ask and Seek, but Don’t Judge

[This is last Saturday’s homily, but I didn’t want to interrupt the 3-part post, so I’m publishing it now.]

Today’s Gospel (Mt. 7:1-8) is the last of the Sermon on the Mount we’ll be hearing from in a while, and it’s an important one, so hopefully we won’t forget it until it comes around again on the liturgical calendar.

We all know that we are not supposed to judge others, but we do it anyway. The Lord was aware of that, so even when He said not to judge, He assumed we would, for the next thing he says has to do with the judgment we in fact make: “With the judgment you pronounce, you will be judged.”  So that is a warning for us.  If we ourselves want to be judged favorably by God, we should not judge others sternly or without compassion.

The Lord makes another assumption in this discourse, and He’s the only one who can get away with this, because only He can read human hearts.  He asks why we wish to remove the speck from another’s eye when we have an entire log lodged in our own.  The assumption is that our sins are worse than the sins of those whom we judge—or perhaps they become worse in the eyes of God by the very fact that instead of repenting and humbling ourselves we point the finger at someone else—and thus we are hypocrites if we insist that others clean up their acts before we do.

St Paul says something quite similar in chapter 2 of Romans.  (The epistle for today is actually from chapter 3, but I will judge the liturgists by saying it would have made more sense to select a passage that corresponds to the Gospel.)  St Paul makes an assumption, too, though we might think it is a rather hasty one.  He forbids us to judge others on the grounds that we do the same things that we condemn others for doing, and therefore we shall come under the judgment of God.  But it really comes down to this: they are sinners and we are sinners, even if we don’t all sin in precisely the same way.

In the reading that actually was prescribed for today (Rom. 3: 19-26), the Apostle says that we all have sinned and thus fall short of the glory of God.  So even if the person I judge sins in a way that I do not sin, it is more than likely that I sin in a way that the other person does not, so it all more or less balances out.  We are all sinners and so we shouldn’t be judging each other for the universal falling short of the glory of God.  We are all in need of mercy and redemption, and so we should all be trying to help and encourage and pray for one another, instead of judging and criticizing and condemning our fellow sinners.

So what is Jesus’ answer to all this?  “Judge not,” and “first take the log out of your own eye.”  That, then, is where we begin.  Once our eyes become log-free, we may then ask the Lord if there is any way He would like us to enlighten others as to how they may repent of their sins.

The Gospel concludes on a different subject: asking and receiving in prayer.  A few years ago I wrote a 3000-word article on the subject, so it’s a large topic and not something that I can speak about in detail here.  But we at least have to accept as true what the Lord said, simply because He’s the one who said it: those who ask receive, and those who seek find, and those who knock enter.  There are many conditions that apply, however, but none of them should prevent us from asking, seeking, and knocking, for we can be pretty sure that those who don’t ask don’t receive, and those who don’t seek don’t find, and those who don’t knock don’t enter.

Yesterday we celebrated the feast of the birth of St John the Forerunner.  His father asked and received, but there was a delay in between, which was likely several decades long.  Probably by time he was an old man, Zachariah had given up praying to have a child.  But the Archangel Gabriel appeared to him saying, “your prayer has been heard.”  Since the heavenly messenger had to explain everything, and Zachariah was still incredulous, we can perhaps assume that the old priest’s initial unrecorded response was, “What prayer?”  So maybe we can add a corollary to that adage, “Be careful what you pray for, since you might just get it”: Be careful what you pray for, since you might just get it 20 years later, when you’ve forgotten all about it!

But in all things we have to return to the basic condition for asking and receiving in prayer: the will of God.  The Lord says, ask and you shall receive; He just doesn’t specify when we will receive, or in what manner.  All this we must leave to God’s loving providence, for the Gospel goes on to say that the heavenly Father gives good things to those who ask Him.   So let us trust in his wisdom and goodness, and ask, seek, and knock.  In his own inimitable way, God will give us everything we need for a good and blessed life: both in this world and in the world to come.

The Riches of His Grace (Part 3)

The second half of chapter two is mainly about the mystery of God’s grace being manifested in the inclusion of the Gentiles in God’s plan of salvation—which was certainly news to the Chosen People (though perhaps not good news in everyone’s opinion!).  For us, the Jew/Gentile issue is not a burning one, for we have long known that God’s grace is extended to all who would receive it, regardless of race, nationality, etc.  Therefore I will pass rather lightly over this section.

We might, however, apply the Apostle’s teaching to any group or individual that we may somehow be at odds with.  This is because Christ, says Paul, “is our peace,” and He “has broken down the dividing wall of hostility,” so that He “might reconcile us both to God in one body through the cross, thereby bringing the hostility to an end.”  Sometimes I have told penitents in the confessional, if they are harboring anger or hatred, or are refusing to forgive someone, that in their minds they should look at the offending person through an image of Jesus crucified—Jesus the Reconciler, Jesus who suffered to heal all the wounds of our rage and hatred—and then see if they can regard that person differently and find the grace to forgive, to “bring the hostility to an end.”

Chapter three begins with more on the divine plan of making the Gentiles “chosen people” along with the Jews.  We can hardly imagine what a bombshell that news was back then, but the fact that Paul had to insist on it repeatedly meant that many could not (or would not) comprehend that the God of Israel would do such a thing.

But Paul goes on to explain how he, one of the Chosen People (with impeccable credentials, as he outlines in Phil. 3:4-6), was further chosen to preach the universal call to salvation through the grace of Christ.  This, again, is part of the richness of God’s grace.  Paul speaks of “riches” many times in these first three chapters: the riches of God’s grace, the riches of God’s glory, his immeasurable riches (endless in extent), and his unsearchable riches (endless in depth).  Paul says he was given grace to preach about all those riches, “to make all men see what is the plan of the mystery hidden for ages in God, who created all things… according to the eternal purpose which He has realized in Christ Jesus our Lord, in whom we have boldness and confidence of access through our faith in Him.”  That’s kind of a summary statement of what St Paul has been trying to communicate in the first half of this epistle: the mystery of God, his eternal purpose—realized in Christ—through whom we can approach God in faith.  Thus the riches of grace are lavished upon us.

The Apostle concludes with a description of his prayer to God the Father, who, as the Giver of Life and the eternal Origin even of the Son and the Spirit, is the source of all true fatherhood and family life and love (“from whom every family in heaven and on earth is named”).  This prayer expresses much of what Paul desires for his beloved people as he tries to enlighten the eyes of their hearts so as to embrace the divine mysteries and blessings.  So I’ll reproduce it here: “…that according to the riches of his glory He may grant you to be strengthened with might through his Spirit in the inner man, and that Christ may dwell in your hearts through faith; that you, being rooted and grounded in love, may have the power to comprehend with all the saints what is the breadth and length and height and depth [meaning the whole fullness of the divine mystery], and to know the love of Christ which surpasses knowledge, that you may be filled with all the fullness of God.”

Again, this is something of a summary of his teaching, his gospel, yet it is also a personal expression of his own love for his people and his own exalted vision of the glory of God.  One thing that is crucial to the effectiveness of prayer is this: it is not by a mere intellectual understanding that we can comprehend the mysteries.  It is only through love, as he will eloquently say elsewhere (see 1Cor. 13:1-3).  He prays here that they be “rooted and grounded in love,” for only in this way they will be able to comprehend what God has done for them in Christ; only in this way will they know the love of Christ which is beyond all knowledge.  He didn’t say that a solid intellectual formation (good as that is in itself) will bring us to the knowledge of the love of Christ (for his love surpasses knowledge).  Only love will get us there; only “rooted and grounded in love” can we know Him who is love.  So then, love is the criterion for knowing—when what we want to know is the knowledge-surpassing love of Christ.

This is the only way Paul can make the audacious assertion that we can be “filled with all the fullness of God.”  First of all, Christ Himself as the Image of the Father contains all the fullness of God (see Col. 2:9-10), so if Christ dwells in us then so does the fullness of God.  But this fullness is a fullness of love.  Christ bears in Himself the fullness of divine nature in a way we cannot, but our access to the fullness of God is through love, a love that first comes into being through faith, as a gift from the riches of God’s grace.

The Apostle concludes with a doxology, giving glory to God in Christ, emphasizing once more the power of God at work in us who believe—a power that can “do far more abundantly than all we ask or think.”  The immeasurable, unsearchable riches: we are moved to return to the beginning of the epistle and exclaim: “Blessed be the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, who has blessed us in Christ with every spiritual blessing!”

The end of chapter three marks a clear end of the first half of the epistle, and not only because it ends with a doxology and a resounding “amen.”  This letter follows the pattern of most of Paul’s writings, which usually begin with a doctrinal section explaining the mysteries of what God has done in Christ. Then follows a paranetic or hortatory section, which encourages the reader to put into practice what he has learned, renouncing the ways of darkness and of “the flesh,” while living in the light and virtuously awaiting the return of the Lord.  This division is very clear in Ephesians.  After the concluding doxology of chapter three, chapter four begins thus: “I therefore… beg you to lead a life worthy of the calling to which you have been called…”

Perhaps in the future I’ll write something on the second half of the Epistle to the Ephesians.  For now, you can take some time to reflect on the marvelous mysteries God has revealed and the Apostle has explained, the riches of God’s grace and mercy to us undeserving sinners, who are now called to live in a way worthy of God’s gifts.  For by grace we have been saved, through faith—not our doing, but God’s—and now we must walk in good works, for we have been created in Christ Jesus precisely for this.  God has destined us in love to be his sons and daughters through Jesus Christ, according to the purpose of his will, to the praise of his glorious grace, which He freely bestowed on us in the Beloved.

The Riches of His Grace (Part 2)

There are two things I’d like to examine here.  One is being “sealed” with the Holy Spirit, and the other is the “guarantee” of our heavenly inheritance.  To be sealed with the Holy Spirit (again, this is done in Christ: “In Him… you were sealed…”) is to be permanently designated or “marked” as belonging to God.  According to the Theological Dictionary of the New Testament, “In sealing believers… God has made them His own inviolable possession; the pledge of this is the Spirit of God in the heart… The Holy Spirit as the pledge of the inheritance is now the seal with which the believer is marked, appointed, and kept for the redemption.”  This seal (Greek sphragis) is indelibly imprinted upon the soul in the sacrament of Chrismation (Confirmation).  In the Byzantine tradition, when the priest anoints the newly-baptized with Holy Chrism, he says only this: “The Seal of the Gift of the Holy Spirit.”

Twice in the above quotation the term “pledge” is used.  This refers to the “guarantee” St Paul mentioned when speaking of the seal of the Spirit.  This term (arrabon), according to the same theological dictionary, “is a commercial term… it signifies a ‘pledge’… a ‘deposit’ which pays part of the total debt and gives a legal claim… ‘earnest-money’ ratifying a compact… It always implies an act which engages to something bigger… The Spirit whom God has given them is for Christians the guarantee of their full future possession of salvation.”  We are not yet in Heaven, but in the Seal of the Spirit we have what we essentially need to claim Heaven when we pass from this world.  St Paul is thus making a strong statement when he says we are sealed with the Holy Spirit, who is the guarantee or pledge of our salvation.  The Good News just keeps on getting better!

Don’t think, however, that this means there is nothing further required of us.  As we can see in other writings of Paul and other New Testament authors, this “guarantee” doesn’t make it utterly impossible for us to lose our souls and hence our eternal inheritance—if we choose to reject God’s will or refuse to repent of our sins.  To those who think that receiving the Seal of the Spirit gives them license to sin without fear of judgment, St Paul says: “Do not be deceived.  God is not mocked, for whatever a man sows, that he will also reap” (Gal. 6:7).  We mock God if we think that just because He has set his seal on us we are saved and thus can henceforth sin with impunity.  The pledge of salvation which is the Seal of the Holy Spirit brings to Heaven only those who choose to “live by the Spirit” and bear his fruit (see Gal. 5:22-25).  To be sealed is to be set apart for salvation by the grace of God in Christ, but the indispensable task of those thus sealed is to “live for the praise of his glory.”  When we actually do that, we can be sure to receive our heavenly inheritance in full.  God will recognize us as already bearing the “pledge” within us that entitles us to full possession of eternal happiness.  As Paul says in another place: “The Spirit bears witness with our spirit that we are children of God, and if children, then heirs…” (Rom. 8:16-17).

The Apostle next launches into a kind of prayer or blessing for his readers, that they may be able to understand and appreciate everything he has already told them.  The Ephesians were not a community that he himself had evangelized, so he begins by saying, “I have heard of your faith in the Lord Jesus…”  He tells them how he prays for them: that God will give them “a spirit of wisdom and of revelation,” for the sake of the enlightenment of “the eyes of the heart.”  I wrote the following on this passage in my book, How Lovely is Your Dwelling Place:

“The gift of the ‘spirit of wisdom and of revelation’ has the effect of enlightening the eyes of our hearts for the purpose of knowing what we can hope for in the future, while experiencing his powerful presence here and now. The eye of the heart (or soul) figures fairly prominently in Eastern Christian spirituality.  The capacity for spiritual perception is indispensable for understanding (as far as this is possible) the mysteries of God and growing towards union with Him.  The eye of the heart or soul is often associated with the nous, which is usually translated from the Greek as ‘mind,’ but this is inadequate… it may be easier simply to speak of the eyes of the heart, for the heart—which in biblical and patristic thought is the center of all human interior life—can be considered the seat of both mind and spirit, of thinking, willing, loving, and especially of encountering the transcendent realities of God… Therefore, having the eyes of our hearts enlightened is the key to developing the specifically Christian world-view, in which God’s presence and activity constitute the foundation, the heart, and the ongoing sustenance of all things in Heaven and on Earth.”

All of this is in service of knowing “the hope to which He has called you, what are the riches of his glorious inheritance in the saints…”  Even though there is much theology in St Paul’s writings, his intention was not merely to “do theology.”  He was rather trying to “enlighten the eyes of the hearts” of his readers, to help them see what he saw, to lead them to that awestruck wonder at the riches of God’s grace which forever changed Paul’s life—and which he knew could forever change theirs, if only they would embrace the mystery of God in Christ fully.

As we begin chapter two, the Apostle looks at God’s grace not from the previous perspective of the eternal plan of God, that is, his foreknowledge and choice of us to share in his spiritual abundance, etc.  Here he instead takes a concrete, historical perspective—our personal histories, which have been grievously marred by sin.  Grace here is not simply the richness of divine blessing but is a remedy for the sickness of sin—or rather, a resurrection from the mortal wound of sin.

St Paul does not mince words: “You were dead through the trespasses and sins in which you once walked, following the course of this world, following the prince of the power of the air [i.e., the devil], the spirit that is now at work in the sons of disobedience.”  So all of the blessings and gifts of God mentioned in the first chapter were not just icing on the cake.  We would be in dire straits, in fact totally without hope for eternal happiness, if God didn’t intervene by sending his Son to take away our sins.  The state of sin is the primordial existential state of man, so the Apostle says “we all once lived in the passions of our flesh,” and that we were “by nature children of wrath, like the rest of mankind.”  So, because of the fall of our first parents, we come into this world at a serious disadvantage, one which makes us inescapably prone to sin.  This disadvantaged condition is called “original sin,” and we need the grace of God to liberate us from its sentence of doom.

It wasn’t God’s will that sin should enter this world, but He did create man free.  So when sin in fact did enter the world (due to an abuse of freedom’s purpose, for freely choosing evil has the effect of enslaving us), it threatened to ruin God’s wonderful plan, which St Paul outlined in chapter one.  God therefore intervened, because He is “rich in mercy.”  The Apostle explains: “But God, who is rich in mercy, out of the great love with which He loved us, even when we were dead through our trespasses, made us alive together with Christ—by grace you have been saved—and raised us up with Him and made us sit with Him in the heavenly places…”  (To sit with Christ in Heaven, even now, indicates the mystical union of the Body of Christ with the Head—the whole Church being the “fullness of Christ” as the Apostle said above.)  God’s mercy is an expression of his everlasting love for us and his delight in doing good to us.  Raising us up out of our “death” due to sin was for this reason: “that in the coming ages He might show the immeasurable riches of his grace in kindness toward us in Christ Jesus.”

In order to stress the initiative and the overflowing love of God, Paul drives the point home: “By grace you have been saved through faith, and this is not your own doing, it is the gift of God—not because of works, lest any man should boast.”  Perhaps Paul is reminding us here of what he said a few verses ago: that we were “by nature children of wrath.”  That is, it is not the bare fact of our human existence that situates us in a state of grace (or constitutes us as children of God and heirs with Christ), nor is it within our power to undo the “curse” of original sin.  To put it simply and bluntly, we start off broken and are unable to fix ourselves.  That is why Paul says that our salvation “is the gift of God.”  Yet salvation is not an indiscriminate or generic gift of God; still less is it given to some and deliberately withheld from others, but it is given to all those who freely desire and accept it, which is why the Apostle says we are saved by grace through faith.  Remember, he also said that the evil spirit is now at work in the disobedient, which should remind us that our response to God has to be conscious, explicit, and ongoing.

We immediately come to a paradox, for Paul goes on to say: “We are [God’s] workmanship, created in Christ Jesus for good works… that we should walk in them” (“walk in them” means practice them, make them a way of life.)  So, salvation is the gift of God and not the result of our works—yet we were created for good works as a way of life, so they are not unimportant or irrelevant to our salvation.  On the contrary, they are required for it, as we clearly see elsewhere, especially in Jesus’ own words in the Gospels (see, for example, Matthew 25:14-46; Luke 6:46-49; 10:25-28; John 5:28-29, etc).

St Paul tends to speak at times in paradoxes, for in fact the mystery of God’s role and man’s role in eternal salvation is something not easily defined.  It’s usually not either/or, but both/and.  Not faith or works, but faith and works; not grace or free will, but grace and free will, etc.  Paul says, for example, in Philippians, that we must work out our own salvation in fear and trembling (sounds like he’s contradicting what he just said above), but then he immediately adds that it is God who is at work in us, both willing and doing (2:12-13).  We can say in all clarity, though, that we cannot save ourselves; only God can, by his grace.  But in saving us, God wills to make use of our cooperation.  If the gift of freedom is at the root of sin, it is also at the root of faith and of every choice to do the will of God, walking in the good works for which He created us.

To be continued…

The Riches of His Grace (Part 1)

[The following post begins a rather long article—so I’m presenting it in three parts—that I wrote a couple years ago for our newsletter.  It’s basically a commentary and reflection on the first three chapters of St Paul’s Epistle to the Ephesians.]

The news in the papers and on TV is mostly bad these days.  Therefore, many of us turn to the Scriptures for some gospel, that is, good news.  Even then, though, it seems like the news is not all good, at least not all pleasant and unconditionally beneficent.  I remember reading about St John the Baptizer in the Gospel of St Luke.  Aside from addressing his congregation as “a brood of vipers” and threatening those fruitless trees with an axe laid to their roots, he said this: “His [that is, the Messiah’s] winnowing fork is in his hand to clear his threshing floor and to gather the wheat into his granary, but the chaff he will burn with unquenchable fire.”  St Luke, apparently with a straight face, immediately comments that in this way John “preached good news to the people.”  I remember once thinking after I had read that: “If that’s the good news, I don’t want to hear the bad!”

But there really is a lot of good news in the Bible, especially in the New Testament, and I’d like to reflect upon a bit of it here.  I’ll be looking at St Paul’s Epistle to the Ephesians, which (even though it contains a few stern warnings in the second half) has some of the best of the good news to be found in the Scriptures.  I won’t be able to make it all the way through the epistle in this limited space, but I’ll reflect on the good news of the first three chapters.

The Apostle begins with a blessing, as he is wont to do, but this one is especially detailed and rich. In the original Greek, this blessing is one long sentence that comprises about 12 verses.  It’s as if he were breathlessly overflowing with eagerness to tell us of the abundance of grace God has granted to us in his Son, and to share his vision of the blessings of life in Him.

“Blessed be the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, who has blessed us in Christ with every spiritual blessing in the heavenly places, even as he chose us in Him before the foundation of the world, that we should be holy and blameless before Him.”  The first thing we should notice is that the Father blesses us “in Christ,” that is, everything that the Father does for us is done in, through, and because of his only-begotten Son.  Therefore St Paul immediately says that the Father “chose us in Him”—even before the foundation of the world!  What can that mean?

You’ll notice in reading Ephesians that Paul uses the word “destined” in several places, indicating both God’s foreknowledge and choice.  The incarnation of the Son of God wasn’t an idea that happened to occur to the heavenly Father one fine day in the history of this world.  It was in his divine mind for all eternity, long before this world was actually created.  God not only foresaw the incarnation of his Son in time and space, but He also foresaw, in the words of St John, “all who received him, who believed in his name”—and to these “he gave power to become children of God” (Jn. 1:12).  That is why St Paul immediately says, “He destined us in love to be his sons [and daughters] through Jesus Christ, according to the purpose of his will, to the praise of his glorious grace, which he freely bestowed upon us in the Beloved.”  The Father foresaw each of us “in Christ,” even before the world was made.

God wanted to create a holy people, who would become his sons and daughters through their union with his one and only Son.  It wasn’t that after countless ages God suddenly became lonely or bored and wanted to surround Himself with happy little creatures to give Him something new to do.  Everything that happened was precisely planned, and the Apostle frequently refers to “the purpose of his will,” “the mystery of his will,” and God’s “plan for the fullness of time.”  God leaves nothing to chance when working out the conditions favorable to our salvation.  We don’t randomly enter the world as the result of irrational biological processes and then exit merely because we break down or wear out.  God knows precisely who He is creating and why, and He designs us uniquely to fulfill our indispensable roles in the eternal unfolding of his wonderful yet mysterious plan.  We may not often know what He’s up to, but part of being a faithful child of God is to trust that He knows what He’s up to!

In this section we have the first mention of God’s “grace.”  It’s a technical theological term for Paul, but it has the meaning of gift or favor or good pleasure.  It is also related to the word for joy.  Essentially it is God’s gift of Himself, or his Divine Energies (as Eastern Christian theologians would say), by which He dwells within us and acts in this world.  Paul will have a lot to say about grace in this epistle, but here he focuses on its free, gratuitous, and super-abundant character.  This “glorious grace” was “freely bestowed on us”—“in the Beloved,” of course!  Again we see that everything is done this way.  So far we have seen that God blessed us in Christ, chose us in Christ, destined us to be his children through Christ, and freely bestowed his grace upon us in Christ.

Now we come to an essential element of these overflowing blessings in Christ: “In Him we have redemption through his blood, the forgiveness of our trespasses, according to the riches of his grace, which he lavished upon us.”  In addition to the reiteration of the richness and lavishness of God’s grace, there’s a new and (if we didn’t already know the story) unexpected element introduced: the blood of Christ, which means He had to die for us.  Paul immediately says why: in order to forgive our sins.  So after being chosen, blessed, and favored by God, we still had to go and muck things up by committing sin, for which the Beloved Son—the reason for all God’s gifts to us—had to suffer and die.  The Apostle sets this lightly aside for the moment, touching on it here only as a further reason for us to give thanks, but he will speak more of our sin—yet there, too, in the context of super-abundant grace—in chapter two.

For now he simply stands in awe at the eternal purpose of God, the “purpose which He set forth in Christ as a plan for the fullness of time, to unite all things in him, things in heaven and things on earth.”  The word here translated “unite” is something of a tongue-twister in Greek (anakephalaiosasthai), which literally means to “recapitulate” or bring things to a head.  At the end of this first chapter, the Apostle says that the Father “has made [Christ] the head over all things for the church, which is his body, the fullness of Him who fills all in all.”  So we’re getting a hint here that the “in Him” of Christ—blessed, chosen, adopted, graced—has a still more profound meaning and reality.  We are not only brought into relationship with Him, but we are literally incorporated into Him, made members of his body, actually becoming integral elements of “the fullness of Him who fills all in all.”  Rich and lavish and glorious grace indeed!

St Paul keeps insisting on our intimate union with Christ.  As we have come to expect, he starts off the next section, “In Him…”  What is it this time?  “In Him we who first hoped in Christ [that is, the Jews who accepted Him as Messiah, Lord, and Savior] have been destined and appointed to live for the praise of his glory.”  Going beyond the fact that these first disciples were established by God in Christ as sons and daughters, chosen and forgiven, he says that now they are to live for his glory.  But we’re all included as well, for he goes on: “In Him you also [that is, the Gentiles who put their faith in Christ], who have heard the word of truth, the gospel of your salvation, and have believed in Him, were sealed with the promised Holy Spirit, who is the guarantee of our inheritance until we acquire possession of it, to the praise of his glory.”

To be continued…

Saints: Job Description

Now that we have completed the octave of Pentecost, we have to start bearing the fruit of the Holy Spirit.  Today the Church tells us what she wants us to do: become saints!  Every year, the Sunday after Pentecost is All Saints’ Day in the Byzantine tradition.  It makes sense, because we can’t just leave the feast of Pentecost without paying some specific attention to how we are to cooperate with the grace of the Holy Spirit in our following of Christ on a daily basis.  For it is precisely the consistency of daily faithfulness to the Gospel of Jesus, and thus to the will of the heavenly Father, that makes saints out of ordinary people like you and me.

The readings today (Mt. 10:32-33, 37-38; 19:27-30; Heb. 11:32 – 12:2) give us some idea as to how the Church invites us to sanctity, and it is clear that this is not an easy path, though it is an eternally rewarding one.  In light of these readings, it can be summarized that the Church’s definition of a saint is one who witnesses to Christ, who loves Him above all, and who is willing to sacrifice everything and to fight evil for his sake.

The Gospel begins with the element of witnessing: “Everyone who acknowledges Me before men, I also will acknowledge before my Father who is in heaven; but whoever denies Me before men, I also will deny before my Father who is in heaven.”  This is both a great and a terrible saying.  Just think, if we speak of Christ to others, in truth and love, He will speak favorably of us to his heavenly Father.  And there’s no higher recommendation than that when we present ourselves at the pearly gates!  Our entrance to the Kingdom of Heaven is thus assured.  But if we deny Christ, and thus He denies us before the Father, we have no hope whatsoever of entering the Kingdom.  Yet this confessing or denying Christ is not only a matter of words.  If we only talk about the Lord but don’t do his will, it is the same as denying Him.  For we will be judged not only on what we have said in this life, but on the testimony which is our life itself: all of our thoughts, words, and deeds.  A saint is one whose whole life is directed toward Christ—not just times of prayer and worship and giving homilies, but the nitty-gritty of relating to others, overcoming temptations, and bringing all of our faculties under the dominion and direction of the Holy Spirit.

Once we decide that we are “for” Christ and are unwilling to deny Him in any overt way, He “ups the ante.”  He now says that we must love Him more than our own family and loved ones, or else we are not worthy of Him.  So it is not enough merely not to deny Him; we have to manifestly embrace Him above all others.  The implication here is that if we do love anyone more than Jesus, we are, to that extent, denying Him and hence are not worthy of Him, and hence will not receive his recommendation before the face of the Father.

There’s another way we can be unworthy of Him, and it follows immediately upon his declaration about loving Him above all.  If we do not take up our crosses and follow Him, we are unworthy of Him.  This is the way our love is put to the test and proven.  The Lord won’t be fooled if we merely say we love Him above all and then are found to be unwilling to make the sacrifices that love requires.  So He adds the part about taking up our crosses and following Him.  Thus we see that the making of a saint is not an easy project.  Even though there are many thousands of canonized saints in the Church, they are a very tiny fraction of the general population.  Yet it has been rightly said that the only real tragedy in this life is not to become a saint (Leon Bloy).

If it looks so far like a daunting task to become a saint, it gets harder still, yet at the same time we have the solution for it.  We learn of this in the reading from the Epistle to the Hebrews.  We hear of struggles and victories of numerous Old Testament saints, who suffered ill-treatment, poverty, mockery, scourging, imprisonment, and even martyrdom for their faith in the true God.  The world was not worthy of them, comments the author of the Epistle.  It is worth noting that in the Byzantine Offices for this feast, even though all the saints are celebrated, the great majority of liturgical texts are in honor of the martyrs.  The martyrs are held up as an ideal, for the Church knows that love is proved by sacrifice and suffering.  The Lord never said: “If you love me, seek pleasure and comfort and wealth and prestige and power, and don’t pay any attention to your needy brothers and sisters.”  That’s why people who do those things do not become saints, but rather lose their souls forever if they do not repent.  The Lord said rather to deny ourselves, take up our crosses, love Him sacrificially, and to witness to Him even at the price of our lives.

So the Epistle counsels us, in the midst of our struggles, to keep our eyes fixed on Jesus, and take courage from the example and the intercession of the “cloud of witnesses,” all the saints who have gone before us, and who are now cheering us on from their exalted vantage point in the Kingdom of Heaven.

The usual translation of Hebrews 12:1 includes the phrase, “let us run with perseverance the race that is set before us.”  But there’s another translation that reads: “let us run by patience to the fight proposed to us.”  Perhaps in the context of the demands of the Gospel, this is the more appropriate translation.  St Paul uses both of these images to summarize the whole of his life when he came to the end of it: “I have fought the good fight, I have finished the race…” (2Tim. 4:7).

If we are going to become saints, we have to be spiritual pugilists.  We have to learn how to fight the world, the flesh, and the devil.  This isn’t an option.  Sanctity isn’t acquired merely by strolling through lush gardens, meditating on the delights of Heaven.  There certainly is a place for that, and we do need times of spiritual rest and refreshment, but our souls are formed and strengthened and tempered and refined only in the heat of battle.  We pray for St Michael to defend us in the day of battle (which, let’s face it, is every day), because the cunning and malicious hosts of Hell are prowling around the world, seeking the ruin of souls.

We can’t afford to be an unfortunate statistic in this battle, for our eternal destiny is at stake.  We have to get off the fence, declare our loyalty, and fight for the sake of Christ and his Gospel.  This is dramatically described in the Book of Revelation: the wicked powers of this world team up with beast from Hell; “they will make war on the Lamb, but the Lamb will conquer them, for he is Lord of lords and King of kings, and those with him are called and chosen and faithful” (17:14).   That describes the saints who align themselves with Christ and go to battle for his sake: called and chosen and faithful.  This is “the fight proposed to us,” as the Bible says.  The Church urges us to accept this proposal on this feast of All Saints, and the Holy Spirit promises abundant grace to assure our victory.

Before we can expect success as we fight this fight and run this race, however, the author of Hebrews offers another important exhortation: “let us lay aside every encumbrance, and sin which clings to us…”  You can’t run a race when shackled to a ball and chain, and you can’t fight the good fight if your hands are tied.  If we look at both the readings for today, we’ll see that we have something to lay aside and something to take up.  We lay aside the heavy weight of sin, and we take up the cross and follow Jesus.  At the “cherubic hymn” in the Divine Liturgy, we are exhorted to lay aside all earthly cares, so that we can receive the King in the Holy Mysteries.  So we lay aside not only sin itself, but also anything that could prove a distraction in our focus on the Lord and on our loving Him above all.  Laying aside sin, attachments, distractions, and other obstacles, we take up our cross and follow Jesus, keeping our eyes fixed on Him, encouraged by the cloud of witnesses who have gone before us.

After hearing all that is required if we are to please the Lord and maintain our fidelity to Him, we might wish to ask, as does Peter in the last section of the Gospel: “Lo, we have left everything and followed you.  What then shall we have?”  So evidently it is not even beneath a great saint to ask: “What’s in it for me?”  That’s all right; the Lord did not reproach him for this question.  It may not be the most selfless one, but it is still legitimate.  It is helpful to have a goal before us when we are struggling to overcome sin and to be completely faithful to the Lord.

The Lord made a special promise to the Twelve, that they would sit on thrones of judgment in his Kingdom.  That promise is not for us, but the Lord did give a promise that applies to all.  Anyone who has sacrificed the benefits of family or property for his sake will not only receive manifold blessings in this age, but more importantly will receive eternal life in the age to come.  That doesn’t mean you can’t have any family ties; it just takes us back to the first part of the Gospel: if you love family more than you love the Lord, you are unworthy of Him and hence will not receive the heavenly Kingdom.

The Lord isn’t trying to place undue burdens upon anyone.  He is just telling it like it is.  The way to Heaven is not easy, but the reward far surpasses the effort and whatever must be suffered before we can enter the Kingdom.   Jesus made it clear that it was necessary for Him to suffer before He could enter his glory, and later, St Peter wrote that Jesus suffered as an example He expects us to follow.  No servant is greater than his Master, after all.  Neither does anyone merely coast into the Kingdom of Heaven.  The message of the readings today is that it requires effort, exertion, and constant fidelity if we are striving for “the holiness without which no one will see the Lord” (Heb. 12:14).

Moreover, it is not for us to decide the terms of the contest, rules of the game, the demands of discipleship, or the conditions for entering Heaven.  We have already forfeited our right to Paradise, and now all depends on God’s grace and mercy.  So we do things his way.  Besides, love doesn’t count the cost, and if we love the Lord we will not complain that the way is hard.  We will simply fight the good fight, run the race, and then let the Lord amaze us for all eternity with the ineffable delights and never-ending wonders He will lavishly set before us.  When we will look back on this relatively short and painful life, we will easily agree—having discovered “what was in it for us”—that in comparison his yoke was easy indeed, and his burden light.

Becoming Perfect

Well, the Church didn’t wait too long to urge us to put into practice the grace of Pentecost.  We’re about to conclude the octave of Pentecost, but we’ve been given readings from the Sermon on the Mount all week, which contains some of the clearest and most uncompromising teachings of Jesus found in the whole Gospel.

Today Jesus exhorts us to give to the poor who beg from us and to love and do good to our enemies (Mt. 5:42-48).  Before we look more closely at these, let us see why Jesus says to do this in the first place.  He wants us to be like his heavenly Father.  As far as natural gifts go, the Father treats the bad the same way He treats the good.  He doesn’t make it rain over the fields of the righteous so their crops can flourish, and then withhold it from their next-door neighbors if they happen to be evildoers.  Nor does He give the light of the sun to his faithful ones and shroud the bad guys in darkness.  His benefits are available to all.

Jesus would have us look at people in the same way.  We’re not supposed to bless our loved ones and curse our enemies; and we’re not supposed to assist only friends and ignore strangers, especially if they are in need.  Anyone can do that, and Jesus said so Himself in the example He gave of loving and greeting only those who do the same to us.  We have to do better than the common lot of sinners if we want to be Jesus’ disciples.  The Lord is calling us to a higher level of behavior and attitude, one that approaches the magnanimity of the heavenly Father Himself.

Jesus says to give to those who beg from us, though I might answer that beggars rarely show up here at the monastery.  But they do show up very often in the mail, and in these hard economic times the need is greater than ever.  These are the ones who beg from us.  Jesus doesn’t say in the Gospel, “First calculate whether you can afford to give and still have plenty left over for yourself.”  No, He just says, “give” and “do not refuse.”  This might not seem wise in the eyes of those whose only concern is financial security, but it is the wisdom of the Gospel of Jesus.

What may be even harder to do is to love our enemies.  Before we can do that, however, we have to discover who they are.  It’s not too hard to love and pray for, say, enemies of fellow Christians like terrorists and persecutors, who may be very far away and who are burning other people’s churches and homes, and beating and imprisoning others, even if we do have some empathy and concern for them.  The ones that are hardest to love are those who are closest to home.  In fact, a couple chapters later in this Gospel Jesus comes right out and says that “a man’s enemies will be those of his own household” (10:36).  Suddenly, the two sayings—“love your enemies” and “love one another”—refer to the same people!  That doesn’t mean, of course, that those we live with are always our enemies, but it does mean that charity begins at home, and that before we blithely profess our love for all mankind, we ought to make sure we are practicing charity concretely in the environment in which we habitually live.

This is not something that comes naturally or easily to most people.  That is why God does things like giving us the Gift of his Holy Spirit.  If we, as the Apostle says, can’t even say “Jesus is Lord” without the grace of the Spirit, we aren’t going to be able to give to the needy or to love our enemies without the help of the same Divine Spirit.

We have a goal to work toward, one that would be impossible without the help of the Holy Spirit.  Jesus concludes today’s reading with it: “You must be perfect, as your heavenly Father is perfect.”  Before we rend our garments or walk away sad, let us remember two things about this saying.  One is that the word “be” should really be translated “become,” so Jesus is not demanding instant perfection from us—though let us realize that “become” does imply change, so no one is allowed to remain as they are.  The second thing is that “perfect” does not, in this context, mean utterly flawless or eternally immaculate as the Father is.  It means here the perfection of love that does not play favorites or exclude the unlovable.  If the Father blesses both the good and the bad, then his love is perfect, and this is how we are called to be.

God will still judge each soul in the end, however, but that is his prerogative and not ours.  As I said, He gives his natural gifts equally, but his supernatural grace is only for those who seek it, and who believe in Him and love Him and humbly serve Him.  For Scripture also says, “God resists the proud but gives grace to the humble” (1Peter 5:5; James 4:6).  So let us leave the judgment to God but strive mightily to meet the demands of the Gospel, becoming as perfect in love as we can—with the help of the Holy Spirit.

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