Sunday, November 26, 2006

What must I do?

+In the Name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit, One God. Amen.

Whenever I hear this gospel passage (Luke 18:18-27) it takes me back some 30 years to the time when, shortly after becoming a Christian, I moved in with four other young Christian men in a house we rented in North Seal Beach. As you might imagine with five marginally-educated yet highly-opinionated young men all under one roof, we had many lively theological discussions, often generating far more heat than light. During one such bull-session, I pointed to this very passage and asked, “Why is it that Jesus didn’t seem to know the gospel?” Jaws dropped and eyes bugged as I continued, “I mean, if this man had come to any one of us asking what good thing he had to do to inherit eternal life, we would have told him that salvation is based not on works but on faith in Jesus Christ alone.” I then pointed out that Jesus did not give that answer. Jesus actually told the man to keep the commandments of God, and what was even worse, to sell his possessions and give to the poor and then become His follower. “Given this golden opportunity to preach the gospel clear and true,” I asked, “why did Jesus mess it up with all this works theology?”

Well, my roommates gave me that look of pity that so often appeared after every opening of my mouth, and explained that the young man in this story had the “old testament mindset” (Gee, that’s a strange thing for a Jew of Christ’s time to have!) of trying to gain salvation through good works. For this reason, Jesus gave him a verbal beating as if to say, “OK, wise guy, you want to earn your way to heaven? Then keep the WHOLE Law of Moses, in perfection, and if THAT’S too easy for you, then sell your entire house and everything in it and give it all away!” They insisted that Jesus was rough on this man in order to make him realize that such a path to God was impossible for any man to keep, and that this realization would somehow lead to him see that all he really needed to do to be instantly saved was just believe in Jesus.

In other words and according to them, Jesus really didn’t mean what He said here. He didn’t really want this guy to keep the commandments or to sell his possessions, any more than He expects any of us to do that. He just wanted the man to believe.

As I tried to stretch my tiny mind around their logic, I couldn’t help but wonder, “Then why didn’t Jesus just say what He meant?” As I continued under their tutelage for the next several months, I learned from them that there were apparently many things that Jesus said that He didn’t really mean. He didn’t really mean that those who believe and are baptized will be saved. He didn’t really mean for us to literally eat His body and drink His blood. And in Matthew 25 He didn’t mean to suggest that eternal life might be decided on whether or not people had fed the hungry, gave drink to the thirsty, or cared for the poor or the sick during their lifetimes.

Unfortunately, these interpretations were not unique to my former roommates alone, for I have since heard many preachers teach the same things. It seems there are many people today who have a hard time believing that Jesus really meant most of the things He said in the gospels, especially when they cause a conflict with contemporary doctrine.

A couple of years after that, as I began to be exposed to the writings of the early Church Fathers, I was shocked to discover an entire body of Christians who did not systematically explain away the teachings of Jesus, but in fact believed that He truly meant every word that He had said. Can you imagine that? Going back and rereading the gospels with this new perspective (Which is actually a very old perspective!) caused me to see how much “spin” we evangelicals had been trained to place upon the scriptures in order to make them fit with our teachings. Far from being the “bible literalists” we prided ourselves on, I saw that we had twisted the true meaning of the scriptures and had very effectively nullified the word of God by our modern traditions of men.

This realization marked a new beginning in my life that was at once very exciting and entirely sobering. I was overjoyed at finally being able to accept the scriptures for what they actually said. At the same time I began to realize that the days of the “free ride” were over in regard to my Christian life. The scriptures which call for us to “sin no more” and to strive earnestly toward the holiness which pleases God could no longer be marginalized, as if simply believing in Jesus did away with the need for all that. I began to see that what I did with my faith, and whether or not it worked its way out in my life, now mattered a great deal more.

So does this mean I have I set aside a pure faith in Jesus Christ and begun to trust in my own works to gain the kingdom of heaven? Not at all! Rather, I now understand the scriptures which teach, “For by grace are ye saved through faith, and that not of yourselves; it is the gift of God, not of works lest any man should boast.” And oh yes, let us not forget the rest of the passage so seldom quoted, “For we are His workmanship, created in Christ Jesus unto good works, which God hath before ordained that we should walk in them.” Strictly speaking, salvation is not of faith alone nor of works alone, but of Christ alone, who gives us both the gift of faith and the gift of good works that we might live them both out and fulfill our calling as God’s workmanship.

My brethren, the Orthodox Christian life is indeed a narrow and difficult way, especially when compared to the “Pop” Christianity of today. God calls us to take the pursuit of our salvation seriously, and to strive for our utmost level of commitment and holy living. This means that there will certainly be struggle in our daily lives, for sin comes so easily and holiness seems so elusive. In the Church we are given the “Medicine of Immortality” in Christ’s Body and Blood, and the many ancient and powerful spiritual tools to aid us and help keep us focused. We have the light yoke of Jesus Christ to gently and graciously guide us in the learning and the doing of that which is pleasing to God. And we are also incredibly blessed to have the stories of the Lives of the Saints, and the eternal witness they provide of people who indeed sold all their possessions to follow Christ unhindered, or who fought bravely against the godlessness of their age, and who laid down their lives in every conceivable way including martyrdom in order to please the God whom they adored.

With so much going for us, can we see that it is only our own spiritual sloth that paralyzes us and keeps us from fulfilling our calling as God’s workmanship? In my opinion, much of the modern traditions of men which nullify Jesus’ teachings are maintained less to preserve a “pure, biblical faith” than to free men from the obligation to struggle and to pursue the narrow and difficult way of salvation in the Christian life. Many evangelicals rise above the limitations of their “official” doctrine to indeed work the works and live the lives which are pleasing to God, whereas many Orthodox equipped with the true teaching utterly fail to live it. Good for them; bad for us.

Let us understand that we are saved only by Jesus Christ, and only when we cooperate or synergize with Him in fulfilling God’s will throughout the course of our lives on earth.

May God help us to continually better ourselves in this regard and not leave undone the work which He has entrusted to us. Let us learn to believe and to live in such a way that glorifies Him, and unites us to Him unto life eternal.

+To the glory of God the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit. Amen.


At 11/26/2006 4:33 PM , Anonymous Bruce said...

In my 9 years of being Orthodox, one of my biggest challenges is to not get angry with the way I was taught all those years. My former teachers of the faith did the best they could with what was passed down to them. Shocking to me when I realized that this passing down had changed radically over even the last 50 years let alone before the Reformation. I am thankful to my Evangelical brethren for bringing me to Christ. I am very thankful to the Orthodox Church for bringing me a faith handed down once and for all!!

Thanks for this wonderful homily Father!

At 11/27/2006 10:42 AM , Blogger Dixie said...

I agree with everything Bruce has to say. I am both thankful for my protestant years, as it is by way of them I came to Orthodoxy, and at the same time I regret them for the errors I embraced and the time lost in them.

Father, you say

This realization marked a new beginning in my life that was at once very exciting and entirely sobering. I was overjoyed at finally being able to accept the scriptures for what they actually said. At the same time I began to realize that the days of the “free ride” were over in regard to my Christian life.

Did you come to this realization before your journey to Orthodoxy?

I have to admit my route to the Church came by a different path...however, once I began instruction with my the men walking the road to Emmaus with Jesus, the Scriptures were opened up to me. When Jesus says "If you love me, you will obey my commands" in John 14:15 and when He tells us His command is to love one another...well, he really means that!

While it is difficult and quite a struggle to walk the narrow is also a relief to get out from under the error--which carries with it a burden of a different kind.

Thank you for this clear instruction.

At 12/01/2006 12:21 PM , Blogger Munkee said...

Why couldn't Jesus have added a caveat, "Leave all that you have, take up your backpack, and follow me."

At 12/15/2006 4:54 AM , Anonymous Bruce said...

What must I do to get a new post? I need a fix!!

At 12/25/2006 10:51 AM , Anonymous Anonymous said...

Fr. Mike - I enjoyed your comments very much. Merry Christmas to you and your lovely wife.- BQ


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