Monday, June 25, 2007

What must I do to be saved?

Let us say that a fellow with no religious training is one day moved by God to consider his salvation. Not knowing exactly where to turn to gain information on this subject, he dusts off the old family bible that he inherited and begins to read the New Testament for the very first time in his life.

Beginning with the gospels, he encounters the life and teachings of Jesus Christ. He discovers that this Jesus is also very concerned with man’s salvation and speaks of it often and with compassion. Finding his heart strangely warmed by Christ’s words, he pays particular attention to them and begins to take notes.

He reads of Jesus’ encounter with Nicodemus in John 3, and His words in verse 5, “Verily, verily, I say unto thee, except a man be born of water and of the Spirit, he cannot enter into the kingdom of God”. Having skipped ahead previously and learned of the Holy Spirit whom Christ promised to send to His Church, our man feels he understands that part of it, but what about this water business; what could that mean? Reading down the chapter to the point immediately after Jesus’ dialog with Nicodemus, he comes to verse 22 and sees, “After these things came Jesus and his disciples into the land of Judea, and there he tarried with them, and baptized”.

“Oh, baptism; that’s what the water means!” our fellow exclaims. Reading further into the New Testament, this idea is confirmed by Jesus in Mark 16:16, “He that believeth and is baptized shall be saved,” and is again emphasized in His final instructions to His disciples in Matthew 28, “Go ye therefore and teach all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Ghost”. Working his way into the Acts of the Apostles, our friend reads of Peter’s great sermon on Pentecost in which he powerfully demonstrated to the Jews that this Jesus, whom they had delivered up to crucifixion, is indeed both Lord and Christ, the long-promised Messiah. Cut to the quick, they asked Peter, “What shall we do?” Our guy identifies with this question. “Yes, what shall I do?” he asks aloud. He then reads Peter’s response, “Repent, and be baptized every one of you in the name of Jesus Christ for the remission of sins, and ye shall receive the gift of the Holy Ghost”.

Well there you have it; water and the Spirit. Believe in Jesus and in all that He taught and be baptized for the remission of your sins. Things are beginning to gel for our man. Next he discovers the concordance in the back of his bible, and looks up the word baptism in its several forms. He reads Peter’s description of baptism as the antitype of Noah’s Ark, by which humanity was saved from the flood, and encounters Peter direct and plain words “even baptism doth now save us”. He reads of Philip’s encounter with the Ethiopian eunuch and how, after hearing the message of Christ, the eunuch requested immediate baptism for his salvation.

“Clearly baptism is intimately linked to the salvation process in the teaching of both Jesus and His apostles,” our fellow concludes. But still he wonders how this is so. He then comes upon Paul’s teaching in Romans 6 which describes baptism as the literal joining of the believer to Jesus Christ in both His death and resurrection. “So this is why baptism is essential,” he exclaims. “It is one thing to believe in the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ, but I must actually be joined to Him through baptism!” This thought, while mysterious to him, actually moves him very deeply and like the eunuch, he is now very eager to find someone who will baptize him into Christ.

He hops in his car and drives to the first church he finds. The sign out front says, “Praise Christian Center” and the caption under that reads, “A bible-believing community”. This sounds good, he thinks, and he goes inside. He finds a middle-aged fellow wearing a polo shirt and Dockers who introduces himself as “Pastor Bob” and asks how he might be of service. Our man replies, “I’d like to be baptized, sir”. Pastor Bob eyes the fellow suspiciously and asks, “Why do you want to be baptized?” Our guy replies, “Because I want to be saved, sir” and goes on to tell his story of how through reading his bible he has come to faith in Christ and wants to be joined to Him through baptism.

At this, Pastor Bob looks down at his desktop, shaking his head sadly. “I see you’ve been listening to the Catholics,” he concludes. “Son, you don’t need to be baptized to be saved, and baptism doesn’t do anything. If you have already acknowledged your sins before God and have accepted Christ as your personal Lord and Savior, you are already saved”. “But what about all those verses that connect baptism to salvation?” our friend asks. “The bible doesn’t say that,” Bob insists, “OK, maybe it seems to say that if you haven’t been taught how to look at the bible properly, but baptism is just an outward showing of an inward doing and portrays the salvation that has already taken place in your soul”. Our guy considers this for a moment before asking, “Where does it say that in the bible?” Pastor Bob is now beginning to shift in his seat a bit and replies, “It doesn’t specifically say that anywhere in the bible, but that’s what it means. You need to start coming to our bible studies on Wednesday nights to let us teach you how you should understand your bible”.

“I don’t get it,” our guy innocently protests. “Are you saying that the bible has a hidden meaning and that I can’t just read it for what it says?” “You need to be taught how to read your bible, son,” Bob replies a bit testily, “Otherwise you’re going to wind up like those poor Catholics who believe in baptismal regeneration or in the real presence of Christ in the Lord’s Table. That’s why I lead bible studies; so I can teach my people what the bible really means in what it says”. A bit nervously our friend asks, “But what did Jesus mean when He said, ‘He who believes and is baptized shall be saved’?” Bob rolls his eyes and answers, “He who believes and ties his shoes will be saved. He who believes and eats french fries will be saved. Don’t you get it? It’s the believing part that saves you, not baptism”.

“Then why did Jesus say it that way?” our guy asks. At this, Pastor Bob stands up and says, “I have to be at the golf course in fifteen minutes; why don’t you just come back on Wednesday night and we can work on setting you straight then. Have a nice day, OK?”

Back in his car and driving home, our friend wonders if he should stop reading his bible for now. “I was just convinced that I needed to be baptized,” he laments. “How was I supposed to know that all that stuff is just symbolic and doesn’t really mean what it says?” He then remembers a lady at work who had mentioned that her daughter had recently been baptized in the Catholic Church. “What a mistake,” he thinks to himself. “I had better go and straighten her out about what the bible really means as soon as possible. I wouldn’t want her thinking that she or her daughter are really saved!

Friday, June 15, 2007

Humble Disciples

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

From Matthew’s gospel [4:18-23] we heard the account of Jesus calling His first disciples, the simple fishermen from Galilee. Most leaders of new movements will try to recruit people of stature in society to lend an aura of respectability to the cause. But Jesus did the exact opposite, deliberately choosing men of humble position to become His closest followers. He selected good, sturdy men for the most part, but they were far from being impressive by worldly standards. At the time, we can be sure that the irony of this situation did not occur to them, namely that the Son of God would pick the lowest of the low to become His apostles, the pillars of His Church, and His witnesses unto all the earth. But this fact was not lost upon the former Pharisee, St. Paul.

Decades later, when the Christians at Corinth were getting prideful and argumentative with one another, Paul wrote to them the following words, “Consider your calling, brethren, how that not many wise men after the flesh, not many mighty, not many noble, are called. But God hath chosen the foolish things of the world to confound the wise; and God hath chosen the weak things of the world to confound the things which are mighty; and the base things of the world, and things which are despised, hath God chosen, yea, and things which are not, to bring to naught things that are…” [1 Corinthians 1:25-28].

Now there’s a bucket of ice-water to the ego! As I read it, it seems that St. Paul was trying to break the news to the Corinthians that Jesus doesn’t generally pick the cream of the crop to become His disciples. Rather, He chooses those who are foolish, who are weak, and most especially, those who are sinful. He selects these, not because there is any natural advantage to having the weak and the foolish and the sinful populate His Church, but because it is these who most need healing, and whose transformation most vividly demonstrates the mercy and power of God to the world.

And so, my brethren, how does this apply to us? At the very least, I think we should recognize that we did not choose Jesus, but He chose us. It was His calling that we were blessed to hear, and not our own wisdom or “epic spiritual journey” that brought us into His Church. We are Orthodox Christians entirely by the grace and calling of God. Furthermore, He chose us not necessarily because He thought we would lend a touch of class to the place, but perhaps because He saw that we were among those in the greatest need of rescue and healing. It is important that we occasionally remind ourselves of these basic things, both for the sake of our continued growth in humility and most especially so that we don’t forget why we are here.

We often refer to the Orthodox Church as a spiritual hospital, and the many things the life of the Church offers us as the therapy designed to heal our souls. This characterization is quite true, but I fear that we sometimes forget it. When that happens, the things given by God for our salvation begin to be seen less as medicines for healing and more as duties or obligations to fulfill. This leads to a kind of drudgery and sloth in regard to the things of God, accompanied by feelings of guilt over what is left undone, or worse, to a neglect of them entirely as we simply immerse ourselves in other things to stay distracted.

How important it is to remember what great and unspeakable mercy God has shown to us by bringing us to this place of healing, and to recall that “He who first loved us” has given us the opportunity of a lifetime to learn to love Him and enter into His eternal communion of love. Where there is love, there is no drudgery or “obligation” or guilt. Where there is love, there are lives being set right and made whole.

Orthodoxy has been called “the religion of love” because it emphasizes the love of God toward us, and sets as its lofty goal that every one of us would gain this love and be utterly and completely transformed by it into the perfect reflection of God’s love. Here we are speaking of the most sublime form of love, the kind of love that sacrifices all for the beloved and even prompts one to lay down his life for the other. This is the love of God for us, seen in the life of our Lord Jesus Christ who has called us to follow Him. This is the kind of love we are meant to embrace and to become.

This love is not fundamentally expressed by emotion but by action. In fact, the proper actions lead toward the cultivation of love and help us to secure it. If we put it in the context of a marriage, we understand that emotions come and go; feelings run hot and cold. Those who mistakenly live by their emotions and feelings alone will not be married for long! But a good marriage is one in which the proper actions take place; where faithfulness and forgiveness are assured, where kindness and gentleness and mercy and mutual respect are expressed daily. A good marriage, and indeed a good family, is one in which all members care for one another and contribute to the common good at whatever level they can. Sadly today many families and marriages do not resemble this, but have become more like individuals who just happen to live under the same roof.

Certainly one of the worst things that could happen to a parish would be for it to become something like that. God has created the family and the parish to be the places where individuals become members, and where members grow together in the love of God to become whole and healthy human beings.

A parish really should be a spiritual family and each of us should enter in and support this family in every way possible, not only for the common good, but for our own good as well. A parish requires the same level of commitment and faithfulness as any other family. It requires the same desire to see each member prosper and do their absolute best. It requires the same self-sacrifice and diligent support. And because this is a holy community, it requires that each member dedicate himself to purity and integrity and openness.

No doubt there are many who would prefer a less intimate model, a parish in which there is a comfortable fog of anonymity in which to hide, to allow the individual to decide for himself the level of support and involvement he will give. I don’t really see that model in the scriptures, however. When Christ calls people, He calls them into community, and He expects them to love and commit themselves to that community every bit as much as He does. Only in this way do we find healing for our humanity and become the grace-filled disciples He has called us to be.

Maybe we don’t feel qualified to be members of such a dedicated and holy community. That’s OK. Remember, God doesn’t call the qualified; He qualifies the called. We may be among those “not many wise, not many mighty, not many noble”. But beyond any doubt, we are also among those who are called. Let us therefore commit to follow Jesus faithfully, to love one another in this spiritual family, and thus to help carry one another across the threshold into the eternal kingdom of heaven.

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

Friday, June 01, 2007

All Saints Sunday

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

As you likely know, on each day of the Church calendar several particular saints are commemorated to remind us of their lives and contributions to our Christian faith. Today however we get a little more ambitious. Each year, on this first Sunday immediately following the Feast of Pentecost, the Church pauses to remember all the saints, that “great cloud of witnesses” encompassing us and supporting us by their examples and through their intercessions.

The placement of this “All Saints Day” on the Sunday after Pentecost is deliberate. Pentecost celebrates the descent of the Holy Spirit and the establishment of the New Testament Church. Today we are reminded that this same Holy Spirit and this same Church that together have made sainthood possible throughout the ages, still makes sainthood possible for us today.

I wonder if we sometimes forget that we have the same calling to sainthood as those who went on before us victoriously. Five years ago I got a reminder of this when His Grace, Bp. Panteleimon of Ghana visited several parishes in Southern California. While at St. Barnabas, His Grace was introduced to several of our parishioners there and in each case he made a brief comment to them in regard to their patron saint. Then a young woman named Kimberly was introduced to him. Somewhat apologetically, she said that she did not think there was a “St. Kimberly” at least as far as she knew. Without skipping a beat, the Bishop replied, “Perhaps you will be the first!”

Needless to say, that caught poor Kimberly just a bit off-guard. But it was a good reminder to her and to the rest of us that this is exactly what Christianity is all about. Christianity is a calling to sainthood. Regardless of whether or not our names will ever appear on the Church calendar some day, we are each still summoned to this same high calling, namely to become saints through our willing cooperation with the grace and action of the Holy Spirit who indwells us.

If Christianity is a calling to sainthood; if the “good news” of the gospel is that we can have a share in the holiness of God and be transformed into radiant vessels of light, then it would seem that one of the worst things that could happen to Christians would be for us to forget or neglect this, thereby reducing Christianity down to something much smaller. Indeed, many Christians today frame the gospel almost exclusively in terms of God forgiving our sins to “save” us, and take it no further. Many even go so far as to deny that Christians can truly begin to become holy in this life. This is a serious error, as the testimony of the lives of the saints down through the centuries so amply demonstrates. Without this call to sainthood, Christianity loses much of its meaning, and our life in Christ loses much of its purpose.

Every action that the Church calls us to--whether it is the call to prayer and fasting, the giving of tithes and alms, the performing of acts of mercy or charity, the resisting of temptation, the eradication of personal sins, the denial of self, the forgiveness of others--all these things have as their combined goal to transform us by the Holy Spirit into people of holiness.

The Christian life is not fundamentally one of passivity. It is never enough to simply call ourselves “Christian,” to come to church on Sunday and to presume that this somehow bestows upon us a special status with God that is saving. Christianity is all about transformation. At the heart of the Christian message is the recognition that God created us to share in His uncreated life and through this, to become like Him. God provides the means for this, but we must supply the willingness and the effort to see it through.

There’s the key right there: effort. There exists today a false notion that Christianity is essentially effortless. You believe in Jesus and you are saved. But the scriptures do not support this view. Jesus often told people whom He had healed to “go and sin no more”. Does that sound easy? To overcome our habits of sin, our attraction to sin, our basic selfishness, our lack of love for others, and to live as Jesus wants us to, is nothing short of a constant, daily struggle--if indeed we are making the attempt at all! My father/confessor puts it this way, that every step toward God is one of blood. What he means is that Christianity is by nature a struggle to lay aside every encumbrance and the sins that so easily entangle us and to run with endurance the race that is set before us.

St. Paul often used such athletic terminology to describe the Christian life. He spoke of “buffeting” his body in order to bring it under submission lest, after preaching to others, he himself was found to be a castaway. Thus even the great St. Paul did not regard his own salvation lightly, but confessed that if he allowed the passions of his flesh to rule over him unchecked, he would suffer great loss.

I fear that the somewhat passive nature of contemporary Christendom often lulls people into thinking that their salvation is assured as long as they “believe in Jesus,” whatever that supposedly means. But to our fathers and mothers in the faith, all the saints who comprise that “great cloud of witnesses” who have gone before us, to believe in Jesus meant to live for Him uncompromisingly and with great commitment.

Christianity is not a religion for wimps! It calls us to be real men and real women, who are willing to rise above selfishness and cowardice and sloth to become what God made us to be. In a very real sense, Christianity calls us to become heroes. The greatest heroes of literature and life are always those who rise above their fears and failings to accomplish the great things they never thought themselves capable of. Whether we realize it or not, all of these stories ultimately point toward the Christian. Each of our individual “epic stories” is meant by God to be one of triumph and great victory.

My brothers and sisters, each of you is called to become a hero. You are called to become a saint. We are all a bit like Bilbo Baggins in this regard, reluctant and unwilling to answer the call. We do not think ourselves qualified to pursue sainthood, and we are right. But God does not call the qualified; He qualifies the called. We must answer that call if we wish to see the mighty works of God accomplished in our lives. Today on All Saints Sunday, we are reminded of our calling to sainthood in Jesus Christ. Let us therefore trust Him who calls us and strive to gain the prize He holds for those that do.

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