On the Law

Romans 7:1-13

St Paul returns to the law of Moses, but not to reinforce the concept of the law. Rather, he does so to illustrate a point. In the law of Moses, a wife was freed from her husband only through death. Divorce or seperation were never enough to free her from her bonds to her husband. Were a woman, divorced in the eyes of the law, to remarry, she would still be an adulteress in the eyes of God. Likewise, Jesus Himself taught us that were a man to marry a woman who was divorced, he would be guilty of adultery (Matthew 5:32). And Paul draws on this interesting parallel here. If a person were to divorce themselves from sin through the law, then they would still remain a sinner in the eyes of God. The law can not free one from the bonds of that marriage, be it to a man or a woman, or to our sinful nature itself. It is only through death that one is freed from the bonds of marriage, and likewise, it is only through the death of Christ and our communion with Him that we ourselves can be freed from those bonds, from the bonds of the law; and thereby become free to marry ourselves to another, Who is Christ the Bridegroom. Through our death and rising up with Christ in Holy Baptism, we are freed truly from our bondage. 

Paul states that we, “having died to what we were held by,” should now serve in this newness of Spirit. His reference to being “in the flesh” refers to unredeemed man still under the power of sin and death. Without Christ and the power of the Holy Spirit, sinful passions are aroused when confronted by the law. In our fallen nature, we seek to use our own willpower to overcome these passions. And yet, I’ve often said that if willpower alone were sufficient, then the gyms would be just as busy on March 13th as they are on January 3rd. And this leads to this constant rebellion, this internal civil war, where we place our willpower on one side to stand against our passions on the other, and most often, the will loses. The alcoholic who seeks to stop drinking using his own willpower may temporarily overcome this passion, only to have it return sevenfold. The glutton may briefly overcome his passions, only to eventually return to his ways, oftentimes more strongly than it ever was. The adulterer may remain chaste for a month or more, but eventually return to the devil’s iconography with greater zeal than ever before. This is what happens when we seek to overcome these passions and vices with our own will, with no reliance on the Spirit of God. The demons are cast out, and returns to find the house cleaned and swept, but empty. And he goes out and finds seven friends to return with him, and the man is worse than when he first began. An empty space is still a space, and we must fill that space with something, otherwise the world and the spirits of the world will fill it with everything. 

So, Paul then poses the question, “Is the law sin?” Since he had not known that covetousness was sin before the law, and sin multiplied because of his knowledge of the law, was the law itself the source of the sin? Of course not. The law was given to us for the purpose of revealing to us the depth of our sin and to help us seek salvation. To seek Christ’s strength, His guidance, His healing. Murder is wrong, and we know that because of the law of God. If the law of God had never been given to us, would that have made murder acceptable in God’s eyes, or would it have still been wrong? Obviously, it would still be wrong, we just wouldn’t have had the knowledge of the fact that it was wrong and thus sought His strength and absolution for our guilt of it. It is not the law that creates sin, it is our fallen nature. And it is not the law that causes sin to multiply in the face of the law, it is our rebellious nature. The law itself is not wicked, but it is humanity’s desire for that which is forbidden. Anyone who has ever been around a two year old can attest to this fact, the best way to guarantee that a child will do something is to tell them not to. 
And this becomes the unfortunate side effect of the law where humans are concerned. When we hear “don’t covet,” our rebellious nature, the sin within us, seeks more and more to covet. When we hear don’t commit adultery, the demons within immediately link us to pornographic imagery and seek to water the seeds of that rebellious nature. The more strongly we are told that something is wrong, the more the flesh desires it, and it is only through the strength of the Holy Spirit that we are able to overcome those cravings for any length of time. Again, our personal willpower will suffice for a temporary time, but only for that temporary time. It is through the power of Holy Baptism that we are freed from those bonds, and through constantly seeking after God, seeking to fill that space with godly and holy things, that we are able to continue to resist these temptations. 
It’s so easy to fall into the trap of hearing a sermon, or reading a blog post, and becoming “convicted” on a Sunday, but where do we stand on Monday morning, on a Friday or Saturday night? Or, God forbid, suppose the baby was sick on Sunday and we couldn’t attend our service, where do we stand that Monday, eight days since that “conviction” hit us? 

In Acts, we read how the Church in obedience to the Church, was able to change the world. Most of us don’t trust the Church, and, if we’re honest, don’t trust Christ, so rather than trying to change the world, we can’t even change ourselves. We get so caught up in the day to day that we don’t read the Scripture, we don’t take the time to say our prayers, we don’t fast, and we never seek His help to resist temptation. We just hope that His forgiveness will be bigger than our sin. And that, my brethern, is an indictment on all of us. Not because we’re not holy and perfect, but because we choose to rely on ourselves, rather than turning to Him. And to be fully honest and transparent, that is something that I personally struggle with so much. I constantly try to fix things on my own. I constantly rely on my own willpower and conviction, rather than on Him. 

My brethern, we are not called to be perfect. We are not asked to be sinless. We are not asked to externally obey the law. We are told to turn to Christ our God in all things and trust in Him. I will never forget my spiritual father telling me that my salvation is fully reliant on my ability to be comfortable with the fact that I will sin. Not to be comfortable with my sin, but to be comfortable with the fact that I will sin. And when I find myself so doing, to repent, take it to confession, and move on. Not to get angry with myself for having fallen into sin, nor to revisit the sin, nor to parade that sin. To repent, to confess, and to move on. To get up, knock the dust off, and say Lord have mercy. And to turn in prayer to God each time that temptation arrives, until eventually, I don’t even realize how long I’ve gone without doing it. And how do I know when I need to do that? How am I even aware of the fact that I have sinned? That’s the purpose of the law. Not that I can never covet or else I won’t enter the kingdom, but to make me aware of the fact that coveting is an offense to God, something for which I must repent and turn to God for. St Mark the Ascetic teaches us that there is one sin which is unto death, and that is the unrepentant one, for which even the greatest saint’s prayers will not be heard if they are guilty of. 

My brethern, let us look to the law, not as a means of salvation, but as a guide to lead us into repentance. Let us each learn the law of God to find what is an offense to Him, and let us truly turn to Him in repentance. Seeking His forgiveness, His power, His guidance in turning away from those sins. I once heard a monk asked what they do in the monastery everyday, and his answer was, “we fall, we get back up, we fall, we get back up.” May we look to that as a guide for our lives as well. Learn the law, but learn it for the purpose of finding our own need for Him, not as something for us to attempt to achieve on our own. 

Christ is in our midst.

On Righteousness

Romans 4:13-25

Paul continues speaking on Abraham’s faith here. And this is vital; after having already noted that Abraham was considered righteous before God while 75, but not circumcised until 99 (Genesis 12:4, 17:24), he likewise continues this while speaking on the law. He uses this to explain that righteousness does not come through our genetic ancestry. Though the law requires one to become a Jew, the law itself offers no promise of salvation, but only wrath (v.15). St Paul then teaches us a very valuable lesson. Where there is no law, there is no transgression of law. And this almost seems to go without saying. If you are on a street with no speed limit, you can never be pulled for going either too fast or too slow. Therefore, if there is no law which states adultery to be sinful, there can be no transgression for committing adultery. Even if adultery is wrong in the eyes of God, if one doesn’t recognize that fact, then there is no sin for us to be held accountable. And this, according to the apostle, was the purpose for which the law was given. The whole purpose of the law was not to offer us salvation, but rather to make us aware of our sinfulness and thus our need for salvation. 

Consider, if you will, the secular mindset. Consider that most, if not all, secular people consider man as nothing more than a mere animal. So, given that particular mindset, what would ever make murder wrong? If man is nothing more than an animal, and we slaughter animals daily, then what makes murder wrong? Even moreso, when so often we look to the animal kingdom and see animals murdering their own kind almost daily, then how can we declare murder wrong? It is because our civilization has a law concerning it, that it is wrong. Other animals freely kill others, there are even some that will sacrifice their own offspring or mates, because there is no law which tells them otherwise. 

In like fashion, the “Law” was given to Israel so that they would understand that adultery was wrong. While polygamy and polyamory ran rampant in Pagan culture, the law made the Jews aware of the fact that such behaviors were an offense to God. And while obedience to these laws was never in and of itself able to offer salvation, they were given so that we would understand our own sinfulness and turn away from it. The law was given to Israel so that they would understand that they are not expected to behave like the animals, like the pagans, but rather, they were to be held to this higher standard of doing what was pleasing to the Lord our God. 

And that brings us to the point here. Paul’s entire teaching here is that it is not through the external that we are saved. It is not merely through not coveting or murdering or lusting after another that we are saved. Rather, it is the righteous, those who are being saved, who receive God’s promise in faith. And this is not merely a superficial faith that externally states “I believe.” Rather, Paul evokes Abraham, the father of faith, to show that it is a faith which directly controls our lives. And, much to the dismay of the Pharisees, it is not a faith based solely on physical lineage. Abraham begot Ishmael through the flesh, and Isaac through the promise of God. This is important to remember, because it is not those who are descended from Ishmael who receive the promise, but rather those who, through Isaac, receive the promise of God through faith. It is not those who happen to be born of the right lineage, but those who are born of the promise…the faith. He here reveals that there is no one ethnicity, no one “elect” group, who receive the promise of God, but rather those who are born of the promise of God, those who receive His word in faith. The true descendants of Abraham are all who believe, for he is the father of all who believe, whether Jew or Gentile. 

Paul concludes here by saying that Jesus was delivered up because of our offenses. He died for the forgiveness of our sins. Had He been a sinner, the law would also have condemned Him. However, since He had perfect love and was without sin, He fulfilled not only the letter, but also the heart of the Law. It is His sacrifice which offers us this state of righteousness, that frees us from sin and death and unites us with righteousness and life. We need only accept this offering, accept this grace, and we also can be healed from the sins which lead us to death. 

Christ is in our midst. 

On the Wrath of God

Romans 1:18-27

The wrath of God that Paul references here is not the wrath that we would think of when we consider that word. See, when we think of wrath, we tend to imagine this sort of impulsive, emotional response to something that we don’t like. We consider it more as “losing our temper” and reacting in turn. And so, unfortunately for us, when we read these words, “the wrath of God,” we naturally imply this limited understanding to God, thereby remaking Him into our image. No, when Paul writes about this “wrath of God,” he is referring to God’s righteous and Holy Judgment. It is His truth, His love, and His power in confronting those who reject Him. And this wrath, Paul says, is revealed against all ungodliness and unrightouesnesss of men, those who reject God and those who suppress the truth of God. 

This is an interesting thought. See, Paul says that God is made manifest in all of creation. Anywhere you look, everything you see, is witness to God. All of us have this ability to recognize His power and authority merely by looking around at the world, all of the wonders of creation. Thus, claiming ignorance of God is no longer a possibility, an excuse. Elsewhere we find Paul state that “these times of ignorance God overlooked, but now commands all men everywhere to repent.” (Acts 17:30). Not only is it no longer acceptable, but honestly, it requires more work, more study, and more faith to reject God than to accept Him. The psalmist declares that “the heavens declare the glory of God; the firmament delcares the creation of His hands.” Any child who looks at the world believes in God, until they are actively taught not to; and that teaching not only creates more questions than answers, it requires more faith to believe those answers than to believe God. And it’s the object of that faith is the reason that it is so aggressively taught. Because it requires faith in science, faith in nature, and ultimately faith in man. 

As an aside, there is a musician that I used to listen to when I was younger. He was a very devout anti-theist, and recently I read an interview with him. He stated that his entire life he had been taught all of these questions to ask about religion, to ask about creation, to ask about morality and mortality, to ask about God. And in so doing, he found himself growing to despise the Church and all that it represented. His carnal nature didn’t want to accept the strictness of the Church; his desire for personal autonomy taught him that no one could tell him what he could or couldn’t do. And he was right, even St Paul affirms that “if there is no resurrection then we are to be the most pitiable among men.” If our faith were errant, then we would have spent our entire lives laboring and being tortured and (in some instances) martyred, and denying ourselves. Paul even says that “if there is no resurrection then ‘let us eat and drink, for tomorrow we die.'” But then, he couldn’t help but keep wondering why so many people were willing to do this. So this man, this anti-theist, began to ask the same questions of science thatt he’d always been taught to apply to religion. He began to apply the same logic against the theories of man that he’d always used against the word of God. And, according to him, he found that Christianity held up much better to this scrutiny than the ever changing answers offered by science. He stopped recording and touring for a few years to read and study the Scriptures, to dedicate time to prayer, to attend every Church service that he could and ask questions for the purpose of learning, not arguing. And then, after his years “in the desert,” he has since recorded two albums and is using his platform to reach the youth as well as his previous fans with the message of the cross. His story is such an inspiration to me because, although never with the fame or notoriety that he had, his story could so easily be mine. 

Paul goes on to state that “although they knew God, they did not glorify Him as God, nor were thankful, but became futile in their thoughts and darkened in their hearts.” This is such a powerful statement because to this very moment, to this very day, time, and place, they remain fully relevant. To be fully human is to worship and give thanks to God, because humanity itself by nature worships. And when we reject God, our hearts become darkened and are left with a void to fill. By our very nature, we have to worship something, and if we reject God, we immediately begin to seek other idols, other objects of worship. We worship the creation rather than the creator. Whether this be an abstract idea, the enlightment brought this concept of worshipping reason; an ideology, something such as worshipping mother earth or the stars; a political party or political allegiance; a celebrity whom we consider to be worthy of following; a newstory even, whether it be the victim of a crime who is martyred for their beliefs; whatever the case may be, we so often seek to fill this void with whatever we can find, something that can logically fill this void with something we consider greater than us, rather than seeking the truth of God. 

And when we do this, we find this “wrath of God” that Paul is talking about, this judgment. And many times, the worst judgment God can offer us is to to give us exactly what we think we want. The Scripture, our history books, and even our current headlines are filled with times that the Lord has given us exactly what we (collectively) thought that we wanted, and the inevitable consequences of those desires. I think back to when the nation of Israel asked Samuel to intercede for them with the Lord that He would give them a king to rule over them (1 Kingdoms 8, LXX). And the Lord responded to Samuel, “heed the voice of the people in whatever they might say to you, for they have not rejected you, but have rejected Me.” (1 Kingdoms 8:7 LXX). And from that point forward, we find so many examples all throughout history where man has sought something other than God, and He has given it to them, and how horribly that ended for them. See, so often man rejects God in the name of freedom, but that freedom leads to even deeper and deeper slavery. Think of the many many nations who sought salvation in Socialism, and yet, once they attained it, fought bloodied years of trying to get out from under it. See, historically, what we have always thought we wanted that would fill that void fails to, it’s never enough. And so we push and push for more and more, until we become enslaved by whatever ideology we sought to begin with. On a personal level, consider the man who thinks that earthly riches will fill that void. How many people keep chasing this “if only I had a little more” philosophy, and how far that finish line of “a little more” keeps getting pushed back. When we seek to fill that void with earthly possessions, it will never be enough, because the nature of earthly possessions could never suffice to fill the void of God when we turn away from Him. Which is why it’s such a powerful judgment when He steps away and allows us to have whatever it is we think we want. 

I’ve so often said that the biggest problem with activism is that you can never be sated once you begin. It’s this same concept, once you embrace this ideology and begin fighting, at what point do you stop fighting? You never can, because it’s this finite goal seeking to fill this infinite void. But, once you are able to recognize this, and begin to seek after God, you will find that He will give you the desires of your heart; but that is the desire of a heart that sincerely seeks Him. If your goal is political success, or ideological fulfillment, or material wealth; none of that will ever be enough. You will never be truly content, because that line will constantly keep moving from you. And if this mindset conquers a nation, that nation will eventually lead itself into ruin. God will never cause it’s downfall, He won’t have to. He will simply allow the nation and each individual person to have what they think they want, and our nature itself will take over and lead to this destruction.

However, once a person, or a people, begin to seek after God sincerely, that is where He will give them the true desire of their heart. As we read in Chronicles, “if My people, who are called by My name, humble themselves and pray and seek My face and turn away from their wicked ways, then I will hear from heaven and will be merciful to their sins and heal their land.” (2 Chronicles 7:14). 

While all of this is most obvious in the political sphere, this is solely a political topic. And that’s the important thing to remember here. While it is more comfortable to read all of this and say, “great, how can we apply this to whatever nation,” it is less comfortable, but more important, to see this on a personal level. No one will ever save the world unless they begin with saving themselves; and the process of so doing will not only envelope you until you can no longer try to save the world, but will influence people along the way. And, if enough people are influenced by your own personal battle to deny the flesh, to deny the carnal, then it will spread. St Seraphim of Sarov teaches us that if we “acquire a Spirit of peace, then thousands around us will be saved.” If we seek God, His grace, His mercy, His love; and abide in His commandments, truly loving one another as Jesus taught us; seeking our own salvation rather than condemning others; then others will question how we are at such peace in spite of what’s happening in the world. And thus, through seeking after our own salvation, we may in deed be the inspiration that so many others need to see. If we, on the other hand, seek to be the voice of reason and the salvation of the world, then we may be judged and given just that opportunity. And, speaking for myself, I would make a horrible savior. And I think most of you would agree on a personal level. There has only been one born of flesh worthy to bear that title, and it is definitely not me. 

Christ is in our midst. 

On Obedience as Faith

Romans 1:1-7, 13-17

St Paul begins his letter to the Romans with an introduction. And yet, it’s amazing how much he reveals in just this introduction to them. He is Paul, the bondservant, the slave of Jesus Christ; called to be an apostle, one who is sent; set apart for the gospel, which is the good news of salvation in Christ Jesus. And he states that this gospel, the good news of Christ, fulfills the prophecies and Scriptures of the Old Testament, which are realized in the incarnation of the Son, Jesus, who is descended from the line of David. 
What’s more, beyond each of these facts, we also see in his introduction all three persons of the Holy Trinity manifest. We see the Gospel of God the Father (V.1), concerning the incarnation of God the Son (V.3), and it being declared so according to the Holy Spirit (V.4). And we also see that it is not through the resurrection that Jesus became the Son of God, but rather it was because He was the Son of God that He was resurrected. 

And for what purpose has all of this been revealed to us? St Paul says that through Him (that is to say, Jesus), “we have received grace and apostleship for obedience to the faith among all nations for His name.” This is interesting to break down. We have received grace, for it is only through the grace of God that we can fulfill this calling. And being grace, this is therefore a gift. As we state in our daily prayer rule, “may faith be imputed to me instead of works, for that shalt find no works which could justify me.” And apostleship implies that we have been sent out. The fulfillment of the great commission. And to what end have we been sent? To reach all the nations, all the ends of the earth. To live and teach obedience to the faith. This obedience to the faith could be (for one who is not of the faith) to accept the gospel of Christ itself, or to the faithful (which such individuals become) to accept the virtue of obedience practiced by those who believe in His name. This is such a vital concept which is all but forsaken in our generation, in our culture. For the unfaithful, to accept the Gospel of our Lord is to be obedient to the faith, to begin to walk in the faith, but it is not the finish line, but rather the starting line. We tend to consider acceptance of the faith as the end all be all purpose of the Christian faith, but to believe the faith to be true is only the beginning. Once we accept this faith, then we must be obedient to it. It is not enough to believe with your words alone, or to “feel in your heart” that it is true, we must actually obey it. Jesus Himself asked why we would call Him Lord and yet not do what He tells us. He explains that His brothers and sisters and mother are they who do the will of God, and condemns those who “praise them with their lips while their hearts are far from Him.”

The Orthodox faith passed down through the generations is a faith which is not spoken about nearly as much as it is lived out by the faithful. Paul tells us that each of us is called to be saints. This is not a reference to some far off mysterious future time in the heavenly kingdom only, it refers to the present time. All who are truly Christian are called to be saints (meaning called to be set apart to God) in the present time, while we currently live. And to do such requires a commitment to true obedience to the faith, not merely knowledge of it. I think of the Gospel lesson to feed the hungry, and consider James’ lesson that “if you see someone who is hungry and cold and naked and say ‘go, be warmed and filled and clothed’ while offering nothing, has this faith saved them? Faith without works is dead.” (to paraphrase). St Mark the Ascetic tells us that knowledge, even true knowledge, is not yet firmly grounded apart from works done in accordance with it, because everything is grounded by being put into practice,” and again, “the person who relies on mere knowledge is not yet a faithful servant; no the faithful servant is the one who put his faith in Christ by obeying what he commands.” 

I’d like to add a caveat here, do not misunderstand me, no works or deeds can ever lead to salvation apart from the grace of Christ. However, what this is stating is that our faith in Christ must be made manifest in our obedience to Christ, which in turn will lead to these very works; not as the source of our salvation, but rather as part of our salvation; part of the process by which we are being saved. When Christ seperates the sheep and the goats, those who claimed to be the faithful, He separates them based on their obedience to His commands (Matthew 25). On both sides, they acknoledge Him as King, and yet, those on the right, in Scripture referred to as the righteous, were those who clothed Him, cared for Him, fed Him, visited Him, etc; those whose faith was made manifest in their works (Matthew 25:35-40). On the other side, the goats on the left, those who claimed to have this faith and yet were not obedient to His commands (Matthew 25:41-45), were those who went away into eternal punishment (Matthew 25:46).
St Paul concludes this by summarizing. He is not ashamed of the Gospel, this Gospel which knows no ethnicity or racial barriers. The Gospel of salvation is offered to all equally, any who are willing to believe and come to faith in Christ. The Gospel reveals to all of us the righteousness of God, which is a continued state of communion with Him. And this state, we must always keep in mind, begins with God, not with us. It begins with Him, and He offers it to us, and we have this choice to either accept it or walk away from it. Paul says that it is “from fiath to faith.” We receive Jesus Christ by faith, and then accept Him as our Lord by continued obedience to that faith. If “Christ died for us according to the Scriptures,” (1 Corinthians 15:3) and “we do not live for ourselves but for Him who died and was raised for us,” (2 Corinthians 5:15), then how could we possibly conceive that obedience to His teachings and commandments is optional? Paul quotes from Habakkuk that “the just (righteous) shall live by faith” (Habakkuk 2:4). 

And we need to consider this statement closely. Notice it is not that the righteous shall have faith, or confess their faith, or read about their faith, but rather that they shall live by it. To live by faith means to change the way that we order and live our lives. The just, the righteous, are not only those who believe in Christ Jesus, but those who order their lives in accordance with that faith, in obedience to Him as our Lord and king. 

Christ is in our midst. 

Paying Attention is the First Step

I’ve so often said that the problem I have with science is that it destroys the beauty of life. When I look at a tree, I want to see the beauty of it, not just the cells which make it up. Like Simba and Pumba stargazing; one sees the souls of the kings past gazing down upon them from the heavens, while the others see balls of gas floating down. When you try to analyze something too strongly, you remove the awe from its very existence and replace it with a different theory, which often times is still incorrect. This can be applied theologically as well. When we try to analyze God too much, we replace the sheer awe of His existence with our own theories, which are often much less correct than the truth of His greatness. I love the fact that in Orthodoxy, the expression “I don’t know” is perfectly acceptable as an answer. We don’t feel the need to have an answer to every question… there are certain things that can always remain a mystery.

This is not to say we replace study with mere imaginings, but rather that we don’t replace the reality of mystery with imagined theories that we can never possibly know the answer to. Rather than remove things that don’t “logically” make sense and replace them with our own explanations in this Eunomian method, creating the faith to be the spiritual equivalent of the Jefferson Bible, we humbly accept that we may not be able to definite an infinite God in our own finite terms.

Original article appears here

In eighth-grade science you took apart a flower and then labeled the parts: pistil, stamen, petal.  But did the flower remain?  You can stretch definitions and say, yes, the sum of these parts is the flower.  It would not, however, be the single chrysanthemum of the corsage you gave the girl you took to the September junior prom.  It did not have the same meaning in the lab that it had on the dance floor, where it was a sign to match her evening of beauty.  In the lab it was an object of dissection; on her gown it was a sign of affection.

Theology is roughly analogous to this distinction.  Throughout history there have been theologians who grindingly tried to define God down to every last thinkable thought, and the end result may be loss rather than gain.  In the thirteenth century St. Thomas Aquinas, for all the great work he did in trying to comprehend every aspect of God in being and behavior, so to speak, reputedly said at the end of his life, “it was all straw.”  This does not mean that Aquinas is unworthy of study; many continue to study his work and the twentieth century saw a revival, called appropriately Neo-Thomism.  For many students, however, Aquinas lacks one crucial approach in his work: wonder and awe.

On the other hand, look at St. Gregory of Nyssa, fourth century theologian whose take was different.  For St. Gregory, God and beauty were intertwined.  He was awed by God and so his approach stressed mystery.  For him, beauty and mystery were also intertwined.  This approach enabled him to realize that we could never comprehend God, never wrap our arms around a definition of God, because there is never an end to our appreciation of beauty.  If we approach God through beauty, then we are always on an uphill path to see more and more of this beauty which is never-ending in this life and, who knows, might extend into any life beyond.  In order to do so, however, we have to see beauty.  And that requires additional steps.

This pathway to God by way of beauty may be seen in another group of theologians, who lived in Syria and other parts of the near east in those early centuries.  Their approach to theology was to write poetry.  Ah!  For St. Ephraim of Syria, for example, the only way to get to God seems to be through metaphor, simile, image and symbol.  These people understood intuitively that God cannot be dissected, labeled, and defined but must be approached through reverent contemplation.  They saw the chrysanthemum and not its individual parts.

Evagrius of Pontus, one of those eastern thinkers of the fourth century, said in his Treatise on Prayer, “If you are a theologian you will pray truly.  If you pray truly you will be a theologian.”  Prayer?  Beauty?  What do these have to do with each other?

Only this: recall the poetic approach of these thinkers.  Poetry is a way to describe your world and yet remain in awe and wonder.  Just like those theologians.  And at the heart of this awe and wonder is the simple, yet profound, act of paying attention.  Poet Mary Oliver wrote, “I don’t know what prayer is.  I do know how to pay attention, how to fall down into the grass, how to kneel down in the grass…”  You can see the twinkle in her eye the same way you can see it in Ephraim the Syrian or Evagrius of Pontus.  This is prayer.  This is theology.  Pay attention!

Original post written by ARCHPRIEST GABRIEL ROCHELLE

On the Early Church

Acts 2:37-43

After having completed his sermon, the Scripture tells us that those who heard were “cut to the heart.” Because of the approach that he had used, using their knowledge of the Old Testament, he was able to disclose to them how Jesus had fulfilled each of the prophecies that had been taught to them. And so, being overwhelmed with this evidence, they were unable to say nothing further, other than, “what shall we do?”

And Peter’s answer defines the Christian life within the Church. “Repent, and be baptized, and receive the gift of the Holy Spirit.” And to this day, our baptismal service fully reflects this fact. When someone is brought into the Church, we first repent of all of our sinful deeds, confess our sins, and renounce the devil. Secondly, we are baptized, descending into the waters of regeneration as into a tomb, and rising up with Christ in the resurrection and newness of life. And then, through the sacrament of Charismation, we receive the gift of the Holy Spirit. And our whole lives are characterized in this manner. The Christian life is a life of repentance, a life of recognizing all of our sins, repenting of them, confessing them, receiving the absolution of them, and asking the Holy Spirit to guide us and lead us away from those transgressions.

And it tells us that “with many other words he testified and exhorted them to ‘be saved from this perverse generation.'” And, we find that “those who gladly received his word were baptized.” It’s important to recognize that they favorably received his word, with pleasure. The Greek word here is “asmenos,” which means “with joy, gladness.” It’s important, because they didn’t succumb to the word, as ones who had lost an argument, or compromised because they felt that he might be right. Rather, because he spoke within a frame of what they already believed, they gladly accepted the truth he taught because it was a logical procession. The prophecies had been spoken, which they accepted, and he merely explained how those prophecies had been fulfilled through Jesus.

What is also paramount to this passage is the chronology of the events presented to us. They received the teachings gladly, were baptized, and then only after each of those things joined the Church. See, one of my greatest “hang-ups” with churches in the West is our focus on numbers. We tend to be far more focused on how many people are in attendance than the actual faith of those who are present. I will never forget being invited, as a teenage anti-theist, to a Catholic Church service and being allowed to partake of the most Holy divine immortal and life creating mysteries, the Eucharist. And to this day, it plagues me that this Church allowed me, at that point a devout anti-theist, to receive the body and blood of our most holy Lord. I contemplate Jesus Himself, who sent away thousands who had no faith and rejected His harder teachings. Jesus, who would rather have had twelve who strongly believed, than thousands who were there for the show. That’s why I love the position of the Eastern Church so much, where some people go years before they are allowed entrance into the Church. This stands in such stark contrast to the Western (primarily) Protestant Church, where I personally know devout atheists who have been allowed to join themselves to the body because no one ever asked them what they believe. I personally know many who will denounce the very teachings of Christ Himself, while in the next breath claiming the name of Christ, and still be allowed to partake of the Eucharist.

And yet, all through the Scriptures, we see how much there is to learn about the faith and the Church before one is allowed to align themselves, join themselves, with the followers of Christ. And such is the pattern given here in this passage as well. Receive the teachings of the Church, believe and embrace them joyfully, be baptized, receive the gift of the Holy Spirit, and then, and only then, be joined to the body of Christ.

And then, this passage concludes by detailing certain central elements of worship; liturgical elements that are indispensable which are prescribe in Holy Scripture. The fellowship of daily assembly, remembering that joining the Church isn’t merely joining a social club, but rather your fellow Christians become your family. Your brother and sister in Christ do not become such merely in superficial nomenclature, they truly become your brother and sister. In the Eucharist, we partake of the body and blood of Christ, we not only join ourselves to Him, but to one another. The breaking of the Eucharistic bread, which is central to our Christian worship. During the Liturgy, we pray, “may the partaking of Thy Holy Mysteries be neither to my judgment or condemnation, but to the healing of soul and body.” This is not merely some symbolic thing that we do once a month, or can replace the elements with, but rather it is the physical and spiritual joining of our lives with Christ for the healing of our souls and bodies, and also the joining together of one another in the body of Christ. As we partake of the divine mysteries, we also join ourselves to one another. Lastly, specific liturgical prayers. Thus those things which the early Church did were to maintain the tradition (doctrine) of the apostles, met daily for liturgical prayer and fellowship, and break the Eucharistic bread. And the end result of this “formula” (for lack of a better word), “Fear came upon many souls, and many wonders and signs were done.”

There is a very popular trend in American churches that states that miracles no longer. It states that the supernatural gifts and wonders ceased with the close of canon. And yet, the Scriptures themselves never attest to this ideology. to the contrary, St Paul references the miracles performed by the Prophet Elias and that he (Elias) was a man just like us. To say that God has ceased to work these signs and wonders would be to say that God has changed, which is a direct contradiction of the Scriptures. Thus, if the Scriptures are to be believed, then it is we who must have changed. Perhaps God no longer performs miracles and signs and wonders because we don’t believe that He can or will.

Those who joined the first Church dedicated their lives to the teachings of the apostles, to the Church. They met daily; they received Eucharist together; they never once argued about what was required of them or what they could get away with. Instead, they “gladly received” the teachings of the Church. Contrast that to our current generation. We disbelieve that God can work miracles; we argue about what “works” are or aren’t required of us; we use prayer merely to hand God our shopping list and then question His existence if we don’t get everything that we want to suit our carnal desires. In the early Church, prayer was liturgical, and it was centered solely around glorifying God. God has never changed. And God’s Church, which St Paul calls the “pillar and foundation of truth,” has never changed. We have. We no longer want to gather just to glorify God, we want God to make us feel better, to give us stuff.

We have changed, my brethern. We have rejected God, we have made Him impotent, and we have rejected His Church. May we all, my brothers and sisters, repent, turn away from this world, and all of it’s “wisdom” and Eunomian precepts, and embrace the true faith. Let us seek Him, let us abide in His commands, and let us embrace the traditions which have been handed down to us throughout the centuries, in word and in epistle.

Christ is Risen!!!

On Evangelism

Acts 2:22-36

Peter concludes his sermon here, right after the outpouring of the Holy Spirit on the Church. Having begun by explaining the Prophecy fulfilled by quoting from the book of Joel, he begins to show how the Resurrection was also foretold. And he goes to great length to explain it in such a manner as to not offend the sensibilities of those who are listening, which would thereby get them on the defensive.

Look at what prudence he uses when he begins this. “Men of Israel,” he begins. While this seems like such a small matter, and certainly is not used as a means of flattery, he addresses them as such so as to put them in the mind of their ancestor, Israel. “Hear these words,” he continues. Not a harsh command, not “LISTEN TO ME!” or even “do as I command,” but simply hear these words. It’s important to realize that he is addressing them very matter of factly, but not confrontationally. “Jesus of Nazareth,” he continues. He realized that in beginning this way, he was showing no bias, no matter of opinion that could be contested. None could argue that Jesus was indeed from Nazareth. To the opposing side, so proclaiming would actually set them at ease, considering that Nazareth was not a place of high esteem. Remembering the words of the apostle, “can anything good come from Nazareth?” And, again, it’s important to note that there is no great claim made in his beginning about Jesus that would set them on the defensive. There was no claim about His divinity, or about His wisdom. Merely His name and His earthly origin.

“A man attested to by God to you by signs and miracles which God did through Him.” Again, we see this slowly building up, and yet, he makes no claim that it was Jesus Himself who had done these things, but rather God working through Him. This is vital, because, having put them in the mindset of their ancestors, they could not deny God’s ability to work through people. And lest anyone question that God had in fact worked through Jesus, Peter uses their own witness against them. “miracles, signs, and wonders which God did through Him, as you yourself know.” They had personally seen it all themselves, the lame walking, the blind seeing, the mute speaking. There was no room for disbelief; through their own witness they could not deny the signs which God had performed through Jesus.

And this is important. Peter had thus far sought to prove to them that Jesus had done nothing wrong in the eyes of God. All of these signs and miracles were truly of God, and they themselves bore witness to this fact. For only God Himself could raise the dead, could restore sight to the blind, could make the lame to walk.

And then, he does something which seems to make no sense to anyone. He seeks to acquit them of the grievous crime which they had been a part of. “By the determined purpose and foreknowledge of God, you delivered into lawless hands, have crucified, and put to death.” It’s the first part which is ever so important here. “By the determined purpose and foreknowledge of God.” He draws on this to show the comparison to them of Joseph and his brothers. They (the brothers) had sold Joseph into slavery, and yet God allowed it to happen in His foreknowledge. In Genesis, we read the words of Joseph, “do not be grieved or angry with one another: for God sent me before you to save your life.” (Genesis 45:5 LXX). See how Peter continues to appeal to their knowledge of the Torah. Though they had sought the death of Jesus, it was not their will which they carried out, but God’s will. It was not they who had ordained the crucifixion of our Lord, but God the Father. And, as Joseph had taught to his beloved brothers, “you meant evil against me, but God used it for good.” (Genesis 50:20 LXX). Likewise, this wickedness that they had done, now revealed to them, was revealed to be not wicked, but rather a part of God’s plan, of which they were involved.

And Peter concludes this homily with the statement that “This Jesus, whom God raised up, of which we are all witnesses…and having received the promise from the Father of the Holy Spirit, He poured out this which you now both see and hear.” He actively seeks to explain to them that it is not drunkenness which they are witnessing, neither any sort of “mental disorder,” but rather is the very fulfillment of the promise which was given by the Prophet Joel and reiterated by our Lord Jesus.

It’s important to note that throughout this entire message, this “homily,” if you will, Peter never once seeks to offend. He never seeks to argue, or cause discord, but rather appeals to the truths which his listeners already affirm. Rather than an aggressive approach, he takes what he already know them to believe, and merely seeks to teach Christ as the “missing link” which ties it all together.

This is an ever so important lesson for all of us to remember. When we seek to teach the truth about Christ to others, we have to bear in mind where they currently are, and show them His hand in the midst of it. The biggest mistake we could ever make is to attack what someone currently believes and seek to “fight” them on our terms. We so often seek to use the Holy Scriptures as a foundation of an argument with someone who doesn’t believe in the Scriptures. If someone doesn’t believe in the Scripture and that is the foundation of our argument, then our whole argument becomes meaningless. Or, we seek to use the Holy Tradition of the Church as our foundation in an argument against someone who believes in the heretical doctrine of “Sola Scriptura.” Again, in so doing, we make our arguments laughable, because we are using something that someone is opposed to as the foundation of why the should believe it. A homosexual who doesn’t believe in the Scriptures will never accept a reference to Leviticus as a reason that they should repent of their sin. Likewise, a “non-denominational Evangelical” will never accept the council of Nicea as an acceptable reference point. We must be well versed in the beliefs of any that we encounter, should we choose to challenge their beliefs. Someone who disbelieves Scripture must be reproved with science, someone who believes in “Sola Scriptura” must be reproved using Scripture. So often, rather than meeting them on their ground, we seek to argue with someone based on our own beliefs. However, much more effectively, as we see from Peter here and Paul elsewhere (Acts 17:23), it is much more effective to take what we know someone to already believe and show them the grace of Jesus in those beliefs.

Let us be cautious of falling into this very trap, my beloved brethern. Let us meet, instead, our neighbors on their own grounds, in their own beliefs, and show them the hand of God in the midst of those beliefs. Let us never attack someone, or condemn them, for such is not our job. Rather, let us reveal to them the truth of God in the midst of their own lives. Love them, pray for them, and allow the Holy Spirit to work through us to help them. We can never argue someone into salvation, we don’t “score a victory for the kingdom” when we post random verses and offend people. Rather, when our lives are filled with the grace of the Holy Spirit, others see that and seek it, and then we answer what they ask. “Acquire the Spirit of Peace and a thousand souls around you will be saved.” -St Seraphim of Sarov

Christ is Risen!

The Way

The very choice to seek the truth or to adjust it to oneself is made in the depths of the human spirit.  There is no one there, and not even God influences the heart.  And it is in this secret choice that the reason for the pre-election or rejection of a person is rooted.  God has revealed to all of us the only way to salvation, and therefore will not have mercy on those who have not sought Him.  The one who, in the depths of his heart, decided to seek God, is already among God’s chosen ones.  And now, during the New Testament, the Lord will not leave him alone.  He will certainly send a preacher to him, who will proclaim the way of salvation to him.

Hieromartyr Daniel Sysoev.

The Great Hospital

So, a little over a month ago, someone reached out to me. They were just leaving a doctor’s appointment and were therefore in the area, so he was wondering if I would like to meet up for an early lunch and to play catch up. This was during Great Lent, so I couldn’t really partake of the feasting, but the conversation and company seemed more than appealing, so I was more than happy to oblige.

We met up and discussed a variety of things, from science and politics to family life to philosophy; among a myriad of other topics as well. At one point I mentioned that it was Great Lent and how proud I was of my son, who for the first time was keeping the fast, and doing a great job of it. So that began a conversation about the rules of fasting in general, what was and wasn’t allowed, exceptions, etc. I pointed out that my wife, for health reasons, had received the blessing of the Church to keep a slightly altered form of the fast. And apparently, that statement struck a cord with him. Not because she was keeping a different fast than my son and I were, but it was the statement that she had received the blessing of the Church. It began a monologue about how the Church shouldn’t have that much power over our lives and how we shouldn’t have to obtain permission from the Church, and who is this one person that he should be allowed to determine if we keep the traditional fast and so on. And he looked dead at me and said, “the Church shouldn’t be allowed to tell someone what they can and can’t eat. If this one priest can change the tradition, then what does that say about the traditions themselves?”

And so I explained to him in the best possible way that I could think to, that the Church is our hospital. It’s the hospital of the soul, and things like fasting, prayer rules, etc are given to us as tools for our spiritual and physical health. In the Didache, we are taught to fast on Wednesdays and Fridays out of reverence for what happened on those two days (the betrayal and the crucifixion), but those two weekly fast days also serve to help discipline our bodies, to bring our bodies into submission so that we don’t as easily become enslaved to our passions. Our regular prayer rule serves to bring us before the Lord to begin our day, refocusing on Him during the midday hours, and then end our day in communion with Him. It also serves to help us to relax and turn away from the distractions of life, even if for only an hour or so a day.

What’s funny to me is that dietitians have now come out as stating that intermittent fasting is indeed helpful to the body; that meditation (or prayer) is very useful for dealing with stress and anxiety; that the scent of frankincense is helpful in calming one’s mind. The very disciplines that the Church has been teaching for millenia, science has finally admitted, although relabeling it in more secular terms. He came out stating that I needed to trust science and not religion, and I was able to honestly respond that the science that they are only now releasing is taking the tenets of thousands of years of Church teaching and rebranding it.

But even more ironically, what I pointed out was that he had just gone to a doctor’s appointment, where the doctor told him that his cholesterol was elevated and he needed to watch his diet. And though he intended to obey, he was sitting there eating a breakfast sandwich with eggs, cheese, bacon, and sausage using french toast for the bread. I pointed out to him on the one hand that he had just gone to the doctor who had told him that eating habits like that were detrimental to his health, and yet, because his body desired it, he was throwing caution to the wind and caving to his passion; something I was able to avoid solely through the discipline of the Church. And the second thing that I pointed out to him was that he had just paid a doctor to tell him what he could and couldn’t eat; whereas the Church freely offers this direction to any who come into it. Many people pay hundreds to thousands of dollars to sit and have someone listen to them talk about everything that’s wrong in their life and receive advice, while in the Church not only is this offered, but is expected of us in confession. We freely receive this same therapy that the secular world pays so much money for. People pay so much money for self-help and TED talks, and we receive those same motivational teachings for free every week, and often times multiple times a week, during the priests homilies. And they are more productive, because they are rooted in the Gospel. He on the other hand had just paid someone hundreds of dollars to do exactly what he said that the Church should have no power to do, tell him what to eat.

For those who are not in the one true, Holy, Catholic and Apostolic Church, I fully understand. I understand the reticence to be obedient to the Church. It means admitting that you are not in control of every aspect of your life. And that’s so hard for us to do in this culture, in this generation. It’s so hard to surrender that facade of control that we all seem to think we have over every part of our lives. But, for those of us in the Church, the Church is a hospital. It’s a place where sick people (sinners) go for healing (salvation); and much like going to the doctor, we have to go in and be honest about what’s wrong, receive the prescription, and obey it to be made whole again. The biggest difference between our hospital and the world’s hospital is that the world’s hospital can delay death and make us a little more comfortable; in our hospital death no longer holds any power, having lost it’s sting through the power of the resurrection.

I am not a doctor. If I start feeling ill or having chest pains, I go to an expert to seek treatment. I’m not a mechanic. If my car starts having problems, I take it to a mechanic, someone who knows what’s wrong and how to fix it. If I seek help in those small trivial matters, why would I not take full advantage of those experts who can help me with something as important as eternity? And likewise, if I go to a doctor or a mechanic, and they tell me something that I need to do to prevent those things happen again, I would adhere to their advice. So, why would I not adhere to those things which the Church instructs me as well? It makes no sense to me that a doctor can tell someone what to and not to eat and they would obey it, meanwhile the Church says not to eat certain things for a temporary period of time and they would immediately argue it. The Church says that you are awake 16-20 hours a day, dedicate one of them incrementally to prayer and everyone says that’s zealous, but Marvel releases a new movie and suddenly an hour doesn’t seem that long. You get on Facebook and suddenly you complain that you only have an hour to scroll through the highlight reel of the lives of people you’ve never met; constantly bombarding yourself with images of things you don’t have, rather than taking that time to be in communion with the One who gave you everything you do have.

The life of a Christian seems foolish and almost laughable to anyone who is not in the Church; as St Paul tells us, “If the dead do not rise, let us eat and drink for tomorrow we die” (1 Corinthians 15:32), and again, “if in this life only we have hope in Christ, then we are of all men the most pitiable” (1 Corinthians 15:19). If Christ is not risen then our faith is futile and we have sacrificed so much of our physical pleasure in the name of faith. And yet, “Christ is risen from the dead” (1 Corinthians 15:20). And if Christ is risen then we are of all men most blessed. For we have received His inheritance, obey Him alone as the Lord and Master of our lives, and we grow to be more like Him every day, through the healing of our souls. And that healing, that salvation, comes through the truth, of which the Church is the “pillar and foundation.” Our hospital, our experts, leading us to the Physician. To whom belongs all glory, honor and majesty.

Christ is risen!