Saturday, June 24, 2006

"Follow Me"

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

In our Gospel Lesson this morning [Matthew 4:18-23] we witnessed our Lord calling His first disciples to follow Him. When the time came for Him to do this, He did not go up to the Temple to select holy and respected priests to become His apostles. He did not call lawyers, those men who were experts in the Law of Moses and thus would have lent great credibility to His ministry. He did not choose from among the Pharisees, the supposed spiritual elite of Israel. Being Himself the son of a carpenter in the eyes of men, He intentionally picked men of His own station in life. In modern terms it would be as if He had walked into a Home Depot and called a grubby housepainter or gone out to the parking lot and called a few day-laborers to follow Him. He selected men who by human reasoning should have been an impediment to His ministry, since much of society would have naturally disregarded such lowly figures.

From there, Jesus immediately set about ministering to the lowest of the low, healing the diseased, the demon-possessed, and those with every human sorrow. All these actions together were designed to reveal to us that sin has in fact made us all lowly people despite outward appearances, and has robbed each of us of the glory that God originally intended for our race.

Man was created to fulfill a truly magnificent role, beyond comprehension in wonder. God had first created the unseen world, the splendid heavenly hosts of angels and spiritual beings. He then created the material world and the many physical animals that populated it. He last of all created man as the unique spiritual and physical creature, the perfect union of both worlds in one being, and the one who was to become the Priest of both, assisting the worship of God on behalf of all creation and, being a visible creature made in God’s image and designed to be filled with His uncreated life and grace, to offer that grace and life and the love of God to all creation in return. It is a truly staggering destiny we are made for! Whatever small potatoes you or I have settled for in our lives, this is what God had in mind when He made us.

When Lucifer, then the loftiest of God’s spiritual beings, sensed that this new, funny-looking creature was destined for a stunningly higher calling than even his own, he was filled with envy. He led a rebellion against God, saying to himself, “I will be greater than man; I will be greater than even He who sits upon the Throne!” He was cast down for this and his lack of repentance, and soon instigated the fall of man to derail God’s plan and cause man not to grow in divine grace, but to return to the dust from which he was taken. The devil’s plan seemed to be successful. The generations of men and women soon forgot their incredibly high calling and gave themselves over to a mere and miserable earthly existence, exploiting creation and one another for personal satisfaction.

In God’s great mercy, man was allowed to experience the consequences of his fall, and sickness, torment and death soon entered the world. This curse was not from God. In Genesis we read that God said to Adam, “Cursed is the ground because of you”. Adam brought about his own curse of death as the result and natural consequence of his separation from the Giver of Life. Being the head of the material world, this curse of Adam’s own making soon spread back to the world itself and Paradise was lost. In its place arose the world we know today; one of despair and suffering, of futility and seemingly endless sorrow and grief.

The Son of God took to Himself our human nature to recreate the divine image in humanity and to provide each of us with the opportunity to return to our pre-fallen purity, and from there to resume the path toward glory, toward becoming a Royal Priesthood, seated at the right hand of God. Jesus came specifically to the lowly, the diseased, the dying, and the tormented to reveal these as the more accurate picture of the human condition when fallen from its intended place. When we read these Gospel stories, we must understand that these poor and miserable people are portrayals of us. Although we do carry with us a nagging and often painful awareness of our sinfulness, we almost never see ourselves as the horribly stricken and incredibly fallen beings that we truly are. We fail to realize that we have fallen fantastically short of the glory that God created us for, and have learned to settle for so much less.

Everything about creation and our lofty calling to reign with Christ as kings and priests speaks of the unsurpassed love of God for us. Yet so seldom do we find it in our hearts to return that love, or to show gratitude by living as God desires. We often approach God out of a sense of duty, or go through the Christian life like sticks of wood. Pinocchio was a little wooden boy who at least longed to become a real boy of flesh and blood. But do we long for authentic humanity? We must admit that God’s intended destiny for us is beyond our comprehension. We, who are lower than the angels, lower in our behavior many times than even the animals, are intended to be glorified and lifted up higher than them all? We cannot imagine such a calling. But more importantly, will we answer it, and allow Jesus to raise us up from our present lowliness to the heights He created us for? Dare we invite the Holy Spirit daily to come and abide in us, to cleanse us from every defilement of flesh and spirit, and to save our souls?

As we saw in our Gospel Lesson, the first disciples left behind everything to follow Christ. Perhaps there are things we should leave behind to follow Him; things such as our self-imposed, habitually low goals in the Christian life, or of being weak and inconsistent in our repentance, or faint and heartless in our pursuit of God’s grace. St. Paul said that we should treat the crown of our high calling as a prize, and train for it like athletes. Many times when we hear the term “spiritual athletes”, we sigh and moan and claim that this is far beyond us. But it isn’t beyond us; this is what we were made for. It is not beyond our God-given capability; it is only just a fingertip beyond our expectation.

“Where there is no vision, the people perish”. We must envision what God has called us to, as best we can. We the lowly are called to great things, and can see them fulfilled in our lives if we will follow Christ with all our hearts. Come, let us follow Him and discover together what great things we were created for.

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

Saturday, June 17, 2006

All The Saints

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

On each day of the Church calendar, several particular saints are commemorated to remind us of their lives and contributions to our Christian faith. On this day however, known as All Saint’s Day, the Church pauses to remember all the saints—that “great cloud of witnesses” encompassing us, supporting us by their examples and through their prayers—who encourage us to run the race with endurance and complete it together with them.

The placement of this commemoration on the first Sunday after Pentecost is deliberate, and reminds us that it is the Holy Spirit who makes sainthood possible. The word “saint” means “one who is holy” and no one is made holy except by the Spirit of God.

In the Gospel lesson today [Matthew 10:32-33, 37-38; 19:27-30], our Lord shows us that sainthood is born out of placing the love of God above every other love. By coincidence, today is also Father’s Day on the secular calendar, and while this particular scripture may not seem to be the best choice for the occasion (“He who loves father or mother more than Me is not worthy of Me” Oh, and by the way, happy Father’s Day…) in reality it is entirely appropriate, if accidental. Our Lord reminds us that as important as the love of father and mother is to the wholeness and well-being of our humanity, the love of God is of even greater importance and brings healing unto life eternal.

The Christian life could be described as the path to sainthood by the acquisition of the Holy Spirit. Each of us, upon chrismation, is granted the seal of the gift of the Holy Spirit. Throughout our lives we are to grow in the Spirit, cooperating with Him, not grieving Him, but submitting our lives to the Spirit’s leading and acquiring His presence and governance more and more. To acquire the Spirit of God is, according to St. Seraphim of Sarov, the true aim of the Christian life. Everything else that we do is for the single purpose of gaining the fullness of the Holy Spirit in our lives and being transformed by Him into saints or “holy ones” of God.

Think of it this way. Every time you pray or fast or come to church; every time you fight some temptation toward evil; every time you offer a work of charity or mercy; every time you are careful to follow any penance given you by your father-confessor; in short, every time you renounce yourself and take up your own cross, seeking to obey God and please Him, you are opening the door to the Holy Spirit and inviting Him to take a larger role in your life. God does not force Himself upon people; He comes to those who desire Him and long for His presence in their lives and wish to become like Him by grace. Sainthood therefore is a deliberate choice, and a daily one for each and every Christian.

There are many people today who perpetuate a corrupted teaching about sainthood, insisting that no one can be truly holy in this life. Whether or not they call themselves Calvinists, they seem to accept without question his idea of the total depravity of man and therefore relegate sainthood to a kind of honorary title bestowed upon Christians by God. They teach that God “looks upon us as being holy” even though He and we apparently both know that this is far from true. They’ve invented the term “positional righteousness” to distinguish from “actual righteousness” which they see as impossible. They will often quote the scripture, “There are none righteous; no, not even one” as if this somehow nullified the glorification of our humanity in Christ and the indwelling of the Holy Spirit in our lives.

Further, they will claim that there is nothing unique about sainthood and that the New Testament calls all believers saints automatically. This, along with the rest of their teaching, is simply not true. As Romans 1:7 says, we are called to be saints. It is a calling, and therefore must be followed to be fulfilled. If the epistles often refer to the early believers as saints, there are at least two reasons for this. One was to remind them of their calling, lest they rest on their halos, and the other was because in their case, the title was appropriate. Because of their fearless devotion to God despite the threat of martyrdom, which gave them the certain knowledge that they were “not of this world”; because they had laid every earthly encumbrance aside awaiting the imminent return of Christ; because of their endless prayer and their selfless acts of charity; because of their basic recognition of the Christian way as transformational, and because they were filled with the Holy Spirit, the early believers became, in the words of H. Tristram Englehart “scary holy”. The title of “saints” in their case was very real and deserved.

Which do you think is better: to imagine that we are merely called saints so that, despite our obviously sinful lives, we can feel better about ourselves knowing that God thinks we are holy; or that we are called to be saints so that we can set upon the path leading to an actual sharing in the holiness of God Himself? I chose the latter, even though it is the more difficult way.

I fear that the modern misconceptions about sainthood trap many believers into a “Christians aren’t perfect, just forgiven” mentality that takes away any incentive to pursue holiness. I am not trying to foster a “them vs. us” mentality here, but only pointing out that this false theology is very pervasive today and may linger in our thoughts and in our approach to God even long after we convert to the Orthodox faith. Many people feel that whatever they do or however they live, nothing matters to God as long as they believe the right things. This strictly rational, doctrine-based approach to salvation fails to satisfy the human longing for true communion with God and for transformational holiness. Thus we see modern Christians constantly in search of the purpose and power that, ironically, their own reason and doctrine have robbed them of. For the Christian, purpose is found in repentance, that daily taking up of one’s own cross in following Christ and in walking in the works which He has prepared for us beforehand. And power is found in the acquisition of the Holy Spirit, not to speak in strange babblings, but for something rather more substantial: to become holy.

On this day that we remember all the saints, let us understand that our lives have real meaning and purpose, and can be joined with power from on high. Sainthood is not some honorary title, but an incredibly high calling granted to us, which is ours to fulfill with the help and indwelling of the Holy Spirit, the Lord and Giver of Life. May His presence be real in each of our lives and in this holy community, as His work of making sinners into saints continues.

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

Saturday, June 03, 2006

Holy Fathers of the First Council of Nicea

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

Today we commemorate the Holy Fathers of the First Ecumenical Council, who defended the truth faith of the Orthodox Church against the Arian heresy of the 4th century. This heresy proposed that Christ was merely a being created by the Father, and not the very Son of God Himself, eternally begotten of the Father. It became a wildly popular teaching, spreading throughout the entire Empire, until at one point the Arian heretics far outnumbered the Orthodox faithful.

We might ask how this heresy became so popular that Orthodoxy was nearly eclipsed by it. The simplest answer is that it provided a belief that people could relate to. Bear in mind the timing of these events. Christianity, which had formerly been outlawed, was now the official religion of the Roman Empire. Thus, the Church was flooded with false believers, many of which were pagans simply seeking the advantages in politics and commerce that being a Christian now offered. These people had no real interest in traditional Christian beliefs, and wished for something more in keeping with their residual pagan concepts. The heretic Arias proposed a simple belief that did away with the inconvenient mystery of the Holy Trinity, and gave these people what they wanted. To put it in modern terminology, we might say that Arianism was politically correct, fitting the whims of the contemporary culture far better than traditional Christian beliefs.

I think we can identify an impulse in this that is still present in our day. Whenever there is conflict between the beliefs of the prevalent culture and those of the Church, there will always be people whose instinct is to change the beliefs of the Church. They want the Church to be “relevant” to the culture and not in conflict.

Today, many denominations are doing just that; bending over backwards to accommodate the secular culture through such things as the ordination of women as pastors, the approval of homosexual marriage, and campaigns to keep abortion legal. Some of these issues are obviously incompatible with our Faith; others are more subtle, causing many Orthodox Christians to wonder if they are truly in conflict with our Holy Faith and Tradition at all.

The ordination of women to the diaconate is one such issue within Orthodoxy today. Proponents of this argue correctly that there were women deacons in the early Church, but then go on to insist that these were forced out by a chauvinistic, all-male hierarchy in a conspiracy that would rival The Da Vinci Code, and which included blaming Eve for the fall of mankind and falsely exalting Mary as an inappropriate ideal of womanhood: pure, ever-virgin and submissive. But is this really what happened? Has the Church’s view of Eve, of Mary, of women, and thus ultimately of humanity itself, been so completely distorted for all this time? Or was the principle reason for changing the custom of ordaining women to the diaconate simply that the function of the diaconate itself evolved and changed over time?

In the primitive Church, the deacons did not typically serve at the altar, but as the scriptures show, they served the temporal needs of the church community, bringing food and care to the widows and orphans, and fulfilling such tasks as St. James called “true religion” on behalf of the Church. In addition, since the early Church baptized converts nude, women deacons naturally assisted any women being baptized with a cloth sheet to maintain modesty during the rite. In time, a fitted baptismal garment replaced the sheet, thus removing the need for assistance. Also the liturgical role of the deacons began to be expanded to include serving alongside the bishop at the altar. Since it was understood that the traditional imagery established in the Old Testament and maintained by Christ was to have men serve at the altar, women did not generally do this.

Thus it is the office itself that changed, and not necessarily the Church’s essential understanding of womanhood. We should point out that the Orthodox Church has never “banned” women from serving in the sanctuary. Even today in many convents, an elder nun may be blessed to assist the priest in such a capacity. But this is done out of need, and not out of a redefining of roles.

Is the Church out of step with contemporary society? Yes, it would appear so. But which of the two offers us the more profound and enlightened understanding of our humanity? Is the Theotokos nothing more than a male-crafted legend, designed to oppress women by keeping them “pure and submissive”? What about our Orthodox understanding that there is no difference between the clergy and the faithful, except that the clergy have been ordained to fulfill specific roles within the Church? Shall we throw that out and redefine our clergy as the “power base” of the Church, one that is inherently unfair unless shared equally with women? Must our definition of equality itself be based on eradicating the God-ordained distinctives of gender; our different yet complimentary roles that together are meant to reveal the image of God in humankind? In short, should we allow the whims and frequently unwise experiments of the secular culture to define our beliefs and practices within the Church, or should we try to better understand our Holy Tradition and what that has to teach us?

The whole world seems to be telling us that we are wrong. The temptation to be politically correct and to bring change is therefore very great. But what difference does it make if the attack on our Faith takes the form of redefining Christ, or of redefining our humanity, or even the Church itself? The end result will be the same: a loss of truth, a loss of salvation, and perhaps most ironically of all, the loss of our relevancy in the world.

The more a church seeks to become relevant to the darkened culture of its time, the less relevant it becomes to the kingdom of heaven and to those who are truly seeking salvation. Orthodoxy still remains a place where one can find the true God, together with the profound spiritual therapies that can restore our humanity, both male and female, and can heal our broken communion with God and with one another. It would be an unspeakable tragedy to replace these treasures with philosophies that may not lead us to God or which may only further confuse our understanding of human nature and gender, and our mutual salvation in Christ.

I pray that God will raise up in our generation truly spiritual men and women who will be able to address these issues and help defend the truth, even as did the Holy Fathers which we commemorate this morning.

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