Tuesday, May 30, 2006

Call No Man Father

In Matthew 23:9 our Lord Jesus Christ plainly states, “And call no man your father on earth; for one is your Father, which is in heaven.”

Despite this single verse proving their error, Roman Catholic, Eastern Orthodox and Anglican/Episcopalian Christians for the most part still arrogantly continue to address their pastors by the warmly affectionate title of “Father”. Many people of Protestant persuasion have come to see this as a clear violation of scripture and proof that these groups have laid aside the teaching of the bible in preference to their own traditions. Now really! Is that truly the case here, or is the problem simply one of disagreement over interpretation?

All reasonable Christians will agree that no individual verse of scripture should simply be yanked out of the bible and applied arbitrarily without regard to its original context. Thus, although it would certainly be a literal interpretation of Matthew 23:9 to insist that you cannot even call your own Dad “Father”, it would be absurd to try to make a case for such an application. To properly understand the meaning of a single verse of scripture, at least three principles of biblical interpretation should be applied: 1) Reading the verse in the context of the original passage from which it was taken, 2) Interpreting the verse in context with the whole of the scriptures, and 3) Seeing the verse in context with how it has been interpreted and understood by the mainstream of historic Christian orthodoxy throughout time. The three guidelines therefore (Perhaps strangely familiar to those in Real Estate) are context, context, and context.

What is the context of the original passage? In reading the entire chapter of Matthew 23, it becomes clear that our Lord is addressing the problem of pride and hypocrisy among the leaders of the Jews. He said to His disciples, “The scribes and the Pharisees sit in Moses’ seat. Therefore whatever they tell you to observe, that observe and do, but do not do according to their works; for they say, and do not do…all their works they do to be seen by men…they love the best places at feasts, and the best seats in the synagogues, greetings in the marketplaces, and to be called by men, ‘Rabbi, Rabbi’…”

What is going on here? The problem was not that these men sat in the seat of Moses; God had obviously appointed them to this role. The problem was not even that they were called “Rabbi” (meaning “Teacher”) by the people, for they were indeed to be teachers of the Law of Moses. The problem was that these men came to love what they saw as their highly exalted position, together with the all the many privileges they received, even as they themselves disregarded, disgraced, and violated everything that they taught others to observe and do. They were prideful and hypocritical.

In another place, Jesus warned His disciples, “It is not to be so among you, for whoever would be first among you, must become the servant of all”. According to Jesus, the proper role of a Christian leader is to be a servant, following the example of Christ. Pride has no place in such a calling. Christian pastors must not be obsessed with leading “great movements of the Spirit” or amassing mega memberships in their churches, but with the much simpler duty of “feeding the sheep” and caring for whatever souls God has entrusted to them. They must not become enamored of their own teaching or status, or allow denominations to be formed around themselves, but humbly follow that which has been believed “everywhere, always, by all” and not divide from the teaching of those before them. Their lives must be transparent, and clearly demonstrate to all that they are truly making their best effort to follow the very same things that they teach to others. Finally, they must not seek their own honor, but in all things honor Christ and put even His humblest disciple above themselves, willingly sacrificing all for the least of these, His brethren.

In short, a Christian pastor must live and act exactly as a father of a family, not putting himself ahead of his children, but doing all and sacrificing all for their sakes. To call such a man “Father” in this case is not to exalt him beyond reason, but to actually remind him of his calling and his responsibility to his spiritual children.

What do the rest of the holy scriptures suggest about this term “Father”? Throughout the scriptures, the term “fathers” is used close to a zillion times to describe those faithful believers who have gone on before us into heaven and which provide us with their own examples of faith. John the Baptist upbraided the multitudes who came out to see him for thinking they could call Abraham their father when they did not live as children of Abraham. He had no quarrel with the title of “Father Abraham”, but with the multitudes’ hypocrisy in thinking they were his children when they were not (See a pattern forming?). In the parable of Rich Man and Lazarus, Jesus openly uses the term “Father Abraham” without, apparently, Abraham correcting Him for its use. In writing to the church in Corinth, St. Paul reminds them, “For though you might have ten thousand instructors in Christ, yet you do not have many fathers; for in Christ Jesus, I have begotten you through the gospel” (I Corinthians 4:15). In other words, Paul used the title “Father” to describe his own unique relationship to the Corinthian church, as opposed to all the others who were merely “instructors” of them. Further, from earliest times Christians have traditionally referred to the saints and teachers of the faith who preceded them as “Church Fathers” in keeping with the precedent set in both the OT and NT scriptures themselves.

The scriptures do not seem to have a problem with using the term “Father” to describe those for whom it is appropriate, nor do they impose a pious restriction of the title to God alone. Even St. John refers to the elder members of the church as “Fathers” in his first epistle. Shouldn’t John, the beloved disciple of the Lord, have known better than to call any man father? Wouldn’t he have known that the others would look up to such elders and seek to emulate their faith and victory in the knowledge of Christ? Oh, well, yeah…I guess that was the point.

Historically then, the normal and reasonable human term of “Father” was used by the people of God to describe those in the faith whom they respected, from the time of ancient Judaism all the way into the Christian era. In this context it seems ludicrous indeed that Jesus possessed an unnatural fear of the word or felt that its use by His disciples would somehow diminish the Fatherhood of God. His own apostles used the word frequently in descriptions of men, even as faithful Christians continued to use it to address their beloved ancestors in the faith, or even their own beloved pastors.

It is not until we come fairly far into the period of the Reformation that we see Matthew 23:9 being applied to Christian pastors for the very first time. This is a significant development. Following the Reformation and subsequent failed attempts at reconciliation, there arose mountains of debate and rhetoric between Roman Catholic and Reformation theologians, with each devising new condemnations of the other almost daily. For every condemnation of schism or heresy leveled by the Catholic Church against the Protestants, the Protestants came up with some new bludgeon to use against the “Papists.” Since some Reformers chose to abandon the idea of an ordained priesthood altogether, some bright brain somewhere latched on to this idea that calling priests “Father” could be condemned as unscriptural because of what Jesus appears to say in Matthew 23:9. Not surprisingly, Protestants overall were slow to accept this rather embarrassing innovation, since many still followed the traditional practice of calling their own pastors “father”. This new idea seemed so unnatural and was so obviously contrary to the longstanding Christian tradition that most felt it was “a step too far” and—not to put too fine a point on it—rather a stupid argument.

Apparently it was only an idea just slightly ahead of its time.

Eventually, this strange and novel interpretation of Matthew 23:9 gained dominance in the more extreme elements of Protestantism, and eventually migrated into the mainstream as the accepted meaning of the verse. Jesus, you see, was aware that Catholics and… What are those other guys? Help me here. Oh yeah, Eastern Orthodox! …would one day use the term “Father” to address their pastors, and so He wanted to give His chosen people, the Protestants, a killer verse to nail them with! As ridiculous as that may seem, what other understanding can we come to if the verse indeed means what many Protestants today insist that it does?

It is curious that so many of the Protestants who would object strenuously to calling their pastors “Father” seem to have no problem with calling them “Teacher” as in, “By Golly, Pastor Billy Bob is one mighty good bible teacher!”. They sure as heck don’t object to having Sunday School “teachers” in their churches. But, wait a minute…wasn’t the term “Teacher” also condemned in the very next verse, Matthew 23:10? (The KJV has it as “Master” but the word means instructor or teacher, as in “master” or teacher vs. “disciple” or student). In addition to this, Protestants don’t generally object to hanging around at ecumenical breakfasts with “Rabbi Schwartz” from the local synagogue, nor even object to calling him “Rabbi”, even though the word "Rabbi" seems to be comdemned by Matthew 23:8. Heck, as good Zionists they practically fall over themselves in giving honor to the Jews to show how much they love Israel. What are you going to do anyway, call him “Pastor” Schwartz??

It would seem that their interpretation of Matthew 23:9 and its accompanying verses, besides being historically incorrect and not jiving with the rest of the scriptures, is also rather unevenly applied. Apparently the contemporary Protestant criteria of biblical interpretation regarding this passage is that it must never be applied to themselves or to people they respect, but only to those who differ from them substantially enough that such an absurd and inconsistent interpretation is warranted.

In short, the relatively recent innovation of interpreting Matthew 23:9 as meaning that Christians should not call their pastors “Father” is both out of accord with the rest of the scriptures and with Christian history as a whole. Seeing the influences that work on the Evangelical/Charismatic world today, wouldn’t it be better if Christian pastors acted as nothing more than simple fathers to their respective church families and were regarded as such, rather than viewing a successful ministry as an open door leading to book deals and hopefully a TBN contract and national fame? Which of these two is more in keeping with the spirit of early Christianity?

Saturday, May 27, 2006

The Blind Man

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

“Christ is Risen!”

Our Gospel lesson from John 9 portrays for us a true spiritual confrontation between darkness and light. In the one corner are the Pharisees, blind to Christ and to the works of God. In the other corner is a young man recently illumined in body and soul.

You see, the true miracle that Christ worked here was not just to open the physical eyes of this man, but to open the eyes of his heart as well. This is what our Lord meant when the disciples asked Him, “Master, who sinned, this man or his parents, that he should be born blind?” and He responded, “Neither, but rather that the works of God should be manifest in him”. Surely the works of God are not just to heal the body, but to enlighten the soul as well.

In the case of this man, Christ performed both healings at once, opening his outer and inner eyes simultaneously. Thus the contrast between the spiritual clarity of the young man who could now see and the dark confusion of the Pharisees who were spiritually blind became painfully obvious. They raged against him, refusing to believe, until finally casting him out of the Synagogue, thus unwittingly demonstrating that they had no communion with those who were of the light.

Our Lord found him and asked, “Do you believe in the Son of God?” The young man asked, “Who is He Lord, that I may believe in Him?” and Jesus replied, “He who speaks with you”. Immediately the young man believed and followed Him. Having his eyes opened by Christ, he then became a follower of Christ, and found the complete healing of his soul and his salvation in Christ.

Christ came to enlighten the world and bring salvation. But what exactly do we mean by the term “salvation”? In popular Christianity, salvation seems to mean little more than having our sins forgiven. But the very word “salvation” actually means healing or wholeness, and implies much more than forgiveness alone. The sins of the whole world are forgiven at the Cross, yet fallen though forgiven men and women still need the healing of God to take place in their lives. Salvation is both this process of healing and its ultimate fulfillment.

Many today would dispute this, claiming that when Christ said “It is finished” from the Cross, the work of our salvation was completed and all we need to do is claim it. But if this were the case, then after Christ said those words there would have been no need for Him to die and undergo burial; no need for Him to descend into hell to destroy death by death and set the captives free; no need for Him to rise on the third day with a glorified human soul and body; no need for Him to ascend into heaven and be seated at the right hand of God the Father on high. All these events become part of our salvation as well, since it is our humanity that He took with Him and transformed through all these experiences. The words from the Cross “It is finished”, simply meant that all the prophecies concerning the suffering Messiah up to that point were fulfilled and He could now continue with everything else needed to heal our fallen humanity and take it into the presence of God.

Where our Protestant friends err is in equating the forgiveness of sins with the totality of salvation, and thus they focus almost exclusively on the Cross and tend to marginalize everything else that Christ accomplished to bring healing, restoration and glorification to our humanity.

If salvation truly were nothing more than the forgiveness of sins—you are forgiven, therefore you are saved—then we are doomed to spend the rest of our lives in fallen, corrupted bodies with no hope of change in this life. Thank God the lives of holy men and women throughout the history of the Church prove that to be a lie! They became sharers in the glorified humanity of Christ as can we.

Furthermore, if salvation is only the forgiveness of sins, what picture does that paint of God? His unbending sense of divine justice could only be satisfied by the horrible death of His own Son before He could be made to accept us? This is a tragic distortion. In the Orthodox view, the Son of God willingly took upon Himself, not the wrath of the Father, but the suffering and death caused by our sins in order to destroy these on His mission to complete the restoration of the divine image in man and to heal us.

The Orthodox understanding of salvation is much more complete and holistic, and does not leave us with a distorted view of God, nor with a salvation that is somehow incomplete. Christ has indeed accomplished everything needed for our salvation, up to the Cross and beyond. We are baptized into Christ for the remission of our sins, and we walk with Him in newness of life to serve Him throughout our lives as His healing takes place in us.

As Orthodox Christians, it is imperative that we understand that salvation is healing, and that the Church is the spiritual hospital where such healing unto life eternal takes place. The divine remedies prescribed by the Church lead to purification, and further, to the eyes of our hearts being fully opened and our souls completely illumined.

But this takes time and our cooperation with the grace of God. We must not mistake the initial gift of faith that God gives to each of us as our total salvation. It is more like the divine spark that is meant to light the lamp and thereby give a much fuller and brighter light. In order for a lamp to shine brightly, it must have its chimney cleaned, its wick adjusted, its reservoir filled with oil. So we must be cleaned, adjusted and filled with the oil of the Holy Spirit to shine as brightly as we can. Otherwise we have nothing but a little spark which, if set on a lamp that is unclean and lacking oil, will only smolder and may eventually go out.

Jesus used the illustration of a lamp in one of His teachings to show that the gift of spiritual illumination is not just for the individual so illumined, but for all those around him as well. I fear that many Orthodox Christians today are much more like neglected lamps. Rather than burning brightly with the light of Christ for the benefit of all seeking salvation, they are more like smoldering wicks, putting smoke in the eyes of men and further blinding them to Christ. Many Christians, by their careless and neglectful lives, create more darkness and put people off from the faith. This is what we saw in the Pharisees. They were all smoke and no light and one had to actually get away from them in order to behold Christ.

What a terrible thing it would be if we were nothing more than smoke in the eyes of men. We can be full of convictions about the “rightness” of our Church, full of doctrines and dogmas, full of arguments designed to convert others—in short, “full of it”—but unless we have allowed the light of God to shine from our lives to some degree, we are better off being hidden under a bushel than inflicting ourselves on others.

We should learn, not only from the Blind Man in this story, but also from the Pharisees. They had a fit because Christ healed on the Sabbath and therefore could not possibly be from God. We might believe, and rightly so, that our Church is the true Church and our understanding of salvation the most intact and complete. But if this conviction causes us to fail to see Christ in others outside of Orthodoxy, then who is truly blind in that case?

Yes, there is much error and falsehood in Christendom and the world in general today. But we must seek to live our faith, gain illumination and healing in Christ, and thus give light to the world and not just more smoke. May God help us to walk as children of the light.

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

Thursday, May 25, 2006

Another lame joke...

A young man and his new bride chose to honeymoon in the Holy Land. Unfortunately his horribly meddlesome mother-in-law insisted on coming along. While in Jerusalem, the mother-in-law unexpectedly died and the son-in-law found himself in a funeral home, making arraignments.

The undertaker said, “We can ship the deceased back to the States for $2000, or if you like, we can have her buried here for $150.

“Let’s ship her back to the States” the young man decided.

“Are you sure?” the undertaker asked. “That’s an awful lot of money, and I can assure you that we really do a very nice burial here.”

“Look,” says the son-in-law, “two thousand years ago you buried another guy here and three days later he rose again from the dead. I just can’t take that chance!”

The Prologue from Ohrid

Thanks to the Serbian Orthodox Church Diocese of Western America, we now have easy internet access to Nikolai Velimirovic's The Prologue from Ohrid: Lives of Saints, Hymns, Reflections and Homilies for Every Day of the Year. To use it, you simply input the calendar day on the main page and it will take you to information about the saints of that particular day. It's a neat resource that allows us to learn a little bit more about all those many names on the Orthodox Church calendar.

Check it out at: http://www.westsrbdio.org/prolog/prolog.htm

Friday, May 19, 2006

I thought it was funny...

Two pieces of string are walking down the street when they pass a bar and decide to pop in for a quick nightcap. As they approach the door they notice a sign declaring “No pieces of string allowed!” The first piece says, “I’m going to give it a try anyway” and walks in and hops up on a barstool. The bartender comes over, looks down at him and asks “Are you a piece of string?” He replies “Yes” and the bartender picks him up and throws him back out the door. Lying on the sidewalk next to his friend he sighs, “Well that’s it; I’m going home”.

The second piece of string winks at his buddy and says, “Watch this”. He then ties himself up and rolls around on the ground until his ends unravel a bit. Grinning at the first piece of string, he walks into the bar and sits on a stool. The bartender comes over, looks down and asks, “Are you a piece of string?” Our scruffy fellow looks up and replies, “No, I’m a frayed knot”.

Sunday, May 14, 2006

Lessons from a Frog

On a recent backpacking trip with friends (some old and some new) I came across this little frog, sitting on a rock in the middle of a creek. I snapped his picture and began to walk away when I thought I heard a tiny voice asking,

“Son of Adam, thine own legend suggests that a lowly frog such as I can be transformed into a beautiful prince by a single kiss. Why then dost thou turn away from the kiss of our Master, which can transform thee from what I see before me into the image of the True Prince, the beloved Son of our God Most High?”

I looked back, and the frog simply shrugged and jumped off his rock.

The woods can sometimes play tricks on your mind…