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Fr. Ted's Blog by Fr. Ted - 1d ago

“‘Truth is truth, wherever it is found, and while Orthodox Christianity does claim uniquely to teach the fullness of truth, it does not claim a monopoly on truth. On that basis, Orthodox Christians are open to mutual learning and mutual transformation. This step may sound radical. But once we admit that truth exists outside our own faith, and especially if we say that everything that is true is true because it reflects Jesus Christ (who is Truth), then we must be open to the ways in which God’s truth has been found even in faiths that do not share our belief in Christ.’ (Peter Bouteneff)”

“‘[Justin] says that all truth belongs to Christians because God, through the Word, is the source of all truth, and the Word who took on human flesh in Christ is the fullness of all human truth. But those who even unwittingly have participated in this truth are in some sense in communion with it however imperfectly, and this is because ‘seeds of the Word (logos)’ [logos spermatikos] are found everywhere.’ (John Garvey)”

(Andrew M. Sharp, Orthodox Christians and Islam in the Postmodern Age, p. 50 & 60)

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As he entered Capernaum, a centurion came forward to him, beseeching him and saying, “Lord, my servant is lying paralyzed at home, in terrible distress.” And he said to him, “I will come and heal him.” But the centurion answered him, “Lord, I am not worthy to have you come under my roof; but only say the word, and my servant will be healed. For I am a man under authority, with soldiers under me; and I say to one, ‘Go,’ and he goes, and to another, ‘Come,’ and he comes, and to my slave, ‘Do this,’ and he does it.” When Jesus heard him, he marveled, and said to those who followed him, “Truly, I say to you, not even in Israel have I found such faith. I tell you, many will come from east and west and sit at table with Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob in the kingdom of heaven, while the sons of the kingdom will be thrown into the outer darkness; there men will weep and gnash their teeth.” And to the centurion Jesus said, “Go; be it done for you as you have believed.” And the servant was healed at that very moment.  (Matthew 8:5-13)

In Matthew 8:5-13, we learn a little bit about being a servant. This Roman army officer, a commander of 100 soldiers, who is used to giving orders and being obeyed, comes to Jesus not as a commander but as a servant himself to beg for mercy from Christ for one of his slaves. And this Centurion gives a good description of what being a servant means. “I say to one, ‘Go,’ and he goes, and to another, ‘Come,’ and he comes, and to my slave, ‘Do this,’ and he does it.” A servant is meant to do what he is commanded to do by the master.

A servant serves others and doesn’t demand his own way. That is what the centurion models as he humbles himself before Christ.   This should cause us to ask ourselves:  am I not supposed to be a servant of God? Then, what should I be doing?  If in relationship to God, I am God’s servant, how am I to behave?

Certainly, not demanding God do what I want, but rather I should be studiously trying to figure out what God wants me to do.

At some point in my life I decided to follow Jesus Christ, to be His servant. I must admit that being a servant was a concept that was nebulous to me as I never grew up around anyone who had servants. But I had this vague sense that I was supposed to obey God in my life. I’ve found it to be very difficult to be a servant of God because at times I forget that I am the servant and God is the master. In my prayer life I demand things from God instead of standing before my master to clarify what I am supposed to do to serve Him. I sometimes forget (and other times ignore!) some of the commandments that Christ gave to me through the scriptures. More embarrassingly, I occasionally even forget about my master – namely God. I get involved in life and lose awareness of His existence. Even worse, I have strong feelings and passions and opinions which make me want to act in a way that I know is contrary to God’s will. So I have to struggle with these questions – do I really want to be a servant of God? What price am I willing to pay to be God’s servant? Am I willing to put aside my wants and my will to serve God? AND to serve others as God commands me?

The centurion in the Gospel lesson understood well what it is to be under command and also to command others.  He knew how to obey and serve as well as give orders.  As a Christian, I need to understand Jesus is Lord, and I am to be his servant.

Also note in the Matthew 8 that Jesus first talks about the kingdom of God before healing the Centurion’s servant. “Truly, I say to you, not even in Israel have I found such faith. I tell you, many will come from east and west and sit at table with Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob in the kingdom of heaven, while the sons of the kingdom will be thrown into the outer darkness…” The centurion’s humility and faith speak to Christ about the Kingdom of God. Christ recognizes the presence of the Kingdom in the centurion – who also happened to be an officer in the army oppressing Israel!  When Christ sees the Kingdom present in the centurion, then He declares the servant healed. He recognizes the Kingdom in this Roman soldier because the soldier showed himself willing to be a servant of God. Christ will also see in us His Kingdom anytime we willingly serve others and do God’s will.

Being a servant of God is a blessed thing.  St. Paul in Romans 6:17-23 talks about another issue related to being a servant: being slaves of sin.  Here we see the negative side of being a servant.

But thanks be to God, that you who were once slaves of sin have become obedient from the heart to the standard of teaching to which you were committed, and, having been set free from sin, have become slaves of righteousness. I am speaking in human terms, because of your natural limitations. For just as you once yielded your members to impurity and to greater and greater iniquity, so now yield your members to righteousness for sanctification. When you were slaves of sin, you were free in regard to righteousness. But then what return did you get from the things of which you are now ashamed? The end of those things is death. But now that you have been set free from sin and have become slaves of God, the return you get is sanctification and its end, eternal life. For the wages of sin is death, but the free gift of God is eternal life in Christ Jesus our Lord.  (Romans 6:17-23)

St. Paul shows us sin is not merely disobeying a rule, sin enslaves. It controls our behavior and our way of seeing the world. Christ comes to deliver us from slavery to sin so that we can love God and love one another.

Sin is an attitude which shapes everything we do or think or say. To sin is to miss the mark or completely miss the goal, to fail to do and be what we are supposed to do and be.  On the other hand, “Good” as a word meant to do or be what you are created by God to do or be. Being good means to do what God wants you to do. A story from the desert fathers to illustrate that sin is more than breaking a law or that sin is complete lawlessness:

There was a wealthy Christian man who was known for being a great philanthropist. One day the abbot of the monastery came to visit him. It happened that a poor widow also came to the rich man and asked for a little wheat. The man told her to bring a cup and he would fill the cup for her. The woman came back with a pot. The man chided her, “This pot is too large. You are a greedy woman.” The widow blushed and was shamed by her benefactor. After she left, the abbot said to the man, “Were you selling the wheat to the widow?” The man said, “No, I was giving it to her in charity.” The monk replied, “If you gave her the wheat in charity, why did you speak harshly to her and measure the amount of wheat you gave her and put her to shame?”

Maybe we even sympathize with the rich man, but the story shows us that sin distorts our view of everything, even charity. Sin is not just disobeying a law, it is a failure to love and act in accordance with the commandments of our Lord Jesus.

Sin is death because it separates us from God, and from God’s love.

Union with Christ means salvation from sin. Generally we seem to want salvation to mean we are saved from sin’s consequences such as the bad results from what we do, or from sin’s guilt,  or from punishment for sin and from hell. Salvation means far more than this – for it means the possibility of living for God and overcoming sin in our life so that guilt and fear of death no longer have any meaning for us.  Salvation means we can actually serve God and receive God’s love.

It is also true at times that if we suffer as a result of our own sins, the suffering can be a form of mercy – it warns us to change our life, it warns us that sin leads to death and that it is time to change our minds, our hearts, our direction in life.

Christ comes to free us from enslavement to sin, so that we can be united to God. Being united to God, being God’s servant, requires of us to be willing to love God and one another.   It is only by being united to God that we can fulfill our task to be God’s servant.  Salvation is not simply from the consequences of sin but from slavery to sin.  We regain our humanity by being re-united to God.

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Sometimes we reduce sin to a notion of breaking a few commandments.  And as serious as believers might consider that, St Paul takes sin to an entirely different level.  For he portrays sin as horrific, brutal and inhumane – enslaving us, and thus forcefully dehumanizing us.  He writes:

But thanks be to God, that you who were once slaves of sin have become obedient from the heart to the standard of teaching to which you were committed, and, having been set free from sin, have become slaves of righteousness. I am speaking in human terms, because of your natural limitations. For just as you once yielded your members to impurity and to greater and greater iniquity, so now yield your members to righteousness for sanctification. When you were slaves of sin, you were free in regard to righteousness. But then what return did you get from the things of which you are now ashamed? The end of those things is death. But now that you have been set free from sin and have become slaves of God, the return you get is sanctification and its end, eternal life. For the wages of sin is death, but the free gift of God is eternal life in Christ Jesus our Lord.  (Romans 6:17-23)

St Gregory of Nyssa comments:

For each of our impulses, when it takes control, becomes the master and we the slave. Like a tyrant it seizes the citadel of the soul, and by means of its underlings plays havoc with its subjects, using our own thoughts as the servants of its good pleasure. There they are: anger, fear, cowardice, arrogance, pleasure, grief, hatred, spite, heartless cruelty, jealousy, flattery, bearing grudges and resentment, and all the other hostile drives within us – there is your array of the masters and tyrants that try to enslave the soul, their prisoner of war, and bring it under their control. (From Glory to Glory, p. 89)

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In the Book of Revelation, the Apostle John hears a voice calling from heaven saying:

“Write this: Blessed are the dead who die in the Lord henceforth.” “Blessed indeed,” says the Spirit, “that they may rest from their labors, for their deeds follow them!”  (Revelation 14:13)

It is a promise of eternal rest for the saints of God – rest from labor, hardships and all toil and tears.   It is the final lifting of the curse that was imposed on our ancestors, Eve and Adam, after they sinned against God.

And to Adam God said, “Because you … have eaten of the tree of which I commanded you, ‘You shall not eat of it,’ cursed is the ground because of you; in toil you shall eat of it all the days of your life; thorns and thistles it shall bring forth to you; and you shall eat the plants of the field. In the sweat of your face you shall eat bread till you return to the ground, for out of it you were taken; you are dust, and to dust you shall return.”   (Genesis 3:17-19)

The labors we experience because life in this world of the Fall is hard and at times harsh.  It is God who promises us a rest from all labor when the eternal kingdom is established.

In our funerals and memorial services, we pray that God will give rest to the souls of those servants of God who have departed this life, just as is promised in Revelation.  We even speak in our services of dying as falling asleep, we are entering into a rest from our labors.  Yet, even though death is a sleep, a rest from our labors, we fear death, and often avoid talking about it.  Death is the one thing in life we are guaranteed to experience but we rarely want to think about it. Talk about living in denial!

We all look forward to the joy of the Pascha midnight celebration, and yet what are we singing about there?  Christ is risen from the dead, trampling down death by death…   Pascha is all about death and the dead – about the death of death.  The very things we avoid thinking about are both part of the greatest celebration of the Orthodox Church.

Myself, I am preparing to enter into retirement, which I hope will be a rest from my labors, but then I think about the Parable of Jesus:

And he told them a parable, saying, “The land of a rich man brought forth plentifully; and he thought to himself, ‘What shall I do, for I have nowhere to store my crops?’ And he said, ‘I will do this: I will pull down my barns, and build larger ones; and there I will store all my grain and my goods. And I will say to my soul, Soul, you have ample goods laid up for many years; take your ease, eat, drink, be merry.’ But God said to him, ‘Fool! This night your soul is required of you; and the things you have prepared, whose will they be?’ So is he who lays up treasure for himself, and is not rich toward God.”  (Luke 12:16-21)

I hope I am not that rich fool.  I know I’m not financially rich.  I did not work to build the parish in order to have an easy life in this world.  My hope is that our labor in establishing St. Paul parish has made us rich towards God.  So when the day comes for us to enter into that sleep, we will do so joyfully awaiting God to call us awake.

For no other foundation can any one lay than that which is laid, which is Jesus Christ. Now if any one builds on the foundation with gold, silver, precious stones, wood, hay, straw— each man’s work will become manifest; for the Day will disclose it, because it will be revealed with fire, and the fire will test what sort of work each one has done. If the work which any man has built on the foundation survives, he will receive a reward. If any man’s work is burned up, he will suffer loss, though he himself will be saved, but only as through fire.  (1 Corinthians 3:11-15)

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Wretched man that I am! Who will deliver me from this body of death?   (Romans 7:24)

St. John Chrysostom was forever a moralist.  He believed strongly in human free will and that we had the ability to choose the good.   As he saw it, death – that last and great enemy of humanity – is really not so bad because death may end our lives but it doesn’t hinder us from being virtuous while we are alive.  If we want to be virtuous we can be and nothing on earth can stop us from choosing the good or doing the next right thing.

Where now are those who accuse death, and say that this passible and corruptible body is for them an impediment to virtue? Let them listen to Paul’s virtuous acts and cease from this wicked slander. For what harm has death caused the human race? What impediment has corruptibility caused to virtue? Consider Paul, and you will see that our being mortal brings us the greatest benefits. For if he were not mortal, then he would not have been able to say, or, rather, would not have been able to demonstrate what he said through his deeds, that, “every single day I die, by the boast about you which I have in Christ Jesus” (1 Cor 15:31).

For everywhere we just need a soul and the desire to act, and there will be nothing to hinder our being placed in the front ranks. Was not this man, Paul, mortal? Was he not unskilled? Was he not poor and earning his bread from daily labor? Did he not have a body endowed with all the constraints of nature? Then what prevented him from becoming such a man as he was? Nothing. Therefore let no one be disheartened to be poor, let no one be displeased to be unskilled, nor suffer pain for being among the lowest ranks, but only those who have a weakened soul and enfeebled mind. For this alone is a hindrance to virtue – wickedness of soul and weakness of purpose – and apart from this there is no other obstacle.   (The Heavenly Trumpet, p. 468)

Thus, we don’t need to fear death for as long as we live and have the desire to be virtuous, death is no impediment to our choosing  to be holy and to do the good.  Neither are we somehow predestined to sin because we have a body.  We experience temptations and sin in and through our bodies, but that does not mean the body is naturally evil.  For God became incarnate to unite us bodily to divinity.  It is through our bodies that we become united to Christ in baptism and in the Eucharist.

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Remembrance of wrongs is consummation of anger, the keeper of sin, hatred of righteousness, ruin of virtues, poison of the soul, worm of the mind, shame of prayer…you will know that you have completely freed yourself of this rot, not when you pray for the person who has offended you, not when you exchange presents with him, not when you invite him to your table, but only when, on hearing that he has fallen into bodily or spiritual misfortune, you suffer and weep for him as for yourself. (St. John Climacus, The Ladder of Divine Ascent)

“But I say to you,” the Lord says, “love your enemies, do good to those who hate you, pray for those who persecute you.” Why did he command these things? So that he might free you from hatred, sadness, anger and grudges, and might grant you the greatest possession of all, perfect love, which is impossible to possess except by the one who loves all equally in imitation of God. (St. Maximus the Confessor)

(from In Communion, Issue 42: Summer 2006)

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As the summer heats up, some Christians might be tempted to skip church for a few Sundays so they can enjoy the summer or just recreate as is often good for us to do (see my post Vacation and Recreation).  Some may think vacation is also a good excuse for skipping church.  It is good for us however to remember why we “go to church” in the first place.

This is why the Church assembles weekly in the Eucharist, not merely to offer petitions, but to remind us that communion with God requires sacrifice. Each Sunday we remember all that the Lord has done for us – “the cross, the tomb, the resurrection on the third day, the ascension into heaven, the enthronement at the right hand of the Father, and the second, glorious coming” – and we are moved to eagerly offer everything we have in return, proclaiming, “Thine own of thine own we offer unto you.” (Demetrios S. Katos, “The Foundations of Noetic Prayer”, Thinking Through Faith, p. 64-65)

“Going to church” is offering our life to God and joining all who offer their talents, resources, time and hearts to God.  We enter into communion with our fellow Christians and with our Lord.  We join our sacrifice to His to give thanks to God and to receive the blessings of eternal life.

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A man is truly free when he exists as God exists; and this way of being is relational. In the words of Metropolitan John Zizioulas, it “is a way of relationship with the Word, with other people and with God, an event of communion, and that is why it cannot be realized as this achievement of an individual, but only as an ecclesial fact.” Communion makes beings “be” and freedom constitutes true being. True freedom does not lie in our ability to make choices – this only manifests the dilemma of necessity – but in our ability, by grace, to love as God does unconditionally, to overcome the fears, anxieties and limitations of our mortal biological existence, and to conquer death. (Alkiviadis C. Calivas, Essays in Theology and Liturgy, p. 78)

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I remember a cartoon I saw once in which a mother tells her son, “I want you to mow the lawn and clean the garage today.”  The son moans mightily and  responds with great complaint saying, “Man, I can’t wait until I’m an adult, then I won’t have to do anything I don’t want to do!”

Most adults recognize the weakness of that logic.   We Americans just celebrated this past week our Independence day, and as much as we value those hallmarks – independence and freedom – we know that freedom brings with it responsibility – responsibility for self-restraint, self-control, self-denial, self-respect and respect for others.  As Christians we know our responsibility includes love for one another, which means we intentionally try to do what is good for others, not just what is good for our self.  For us love for one another and freedom are not opposed to each other but work in harmony to help us see ourselves as part of a greater whole – whether part of family, or neighborhood, or city or state or nation.  Our life in Christ always means working out our salvation in relationship to the church, to our neighbors, to our family, to strangers, and even to enemies and to the world itself.

The goal of this love is to help build up in us a concern for others.  In Matthew 6:22-33, our Lord Jesus Christ tells us numerous times not to be anxious.  He concludes his anti-anxiety lesson with these words:

Therefore do not be anxious, saying, ‘What shall we eat?’ or ‘What shall we drink?’ or ‘What shall we wear?’ For the Gentiles seek all these things; and your heavenly Father knows that you need them all. But seek first his kingdom and his righteousness, and all these things shall be yours as well. “Therefore do not be anxious about tomorrow, for tomorrow will be anxious for itself. Let the day’s own trouble be sufficient for the day.

do not be anxious about your life –    Jesus taught us liberation from anxiety, concern and worry – that was His idea of freedom and independence.  Freedom from concern not because God grants us our every wish, but rather He taught us that by being united to God in prayer, we learn how to be content in every situation.  We learn to be thankful always and in all circumstances.     Worry doesn’t take away tomorrow’s problems, it only takes the joy out of today.  Faith in God on the other hand helps us to look to God and for God in every circumstance.

For I am sure that neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor principalities, nor things present, nor things to come, nor powers, nor height, nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord.  (Romans 8:38-39)

If we are united to God, we will not be shaken by the events happening in our lives.    As St Paul says in Philippians 4:6-7,

Have no anxiety about anything, but in everything by prayer and supplication with thanksgiving let your requests be made known to God. And the peace of God, which passes all understanding, will keep your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus.

We are told not to be anxious, but rather to pray.  Yet, we are also warned that problems will arise, but that in Christ, if we stand firmly with Christ, we will have reason to hope even in the face of problems because in Christ we are already united to God.  In Christ we are united to God even through times of sorrow or suffering, as we heard St Paul say in today’s Epistle:

Therefore, since we are justified by faith, we have peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ. Through him we have obtained access to this grace in which we stand, and we rejoice in our hope of sharing the glory of God. More than that, we rejoice in our sufferings, knowing that suffering produces endurance, and endurance produces character, and character produces hope, and hope does not disappoint us, because God’s love has been poured into our hearts through the Holy Spirit which has been given to us.   (Romans 5:1-10)

In the midst of all that troubles us, bothers us, weighs us down, confuses us, or causes us to suffer, there is hope – that is what our faith in Jesus Christ is and produces.  The world doesn’t have the last/final say, there is yet a judgment of this world, and this world as we know it as well as our own lives will become visible to us from a new perspective in which this world and our lives will seem small and unimportant in the grand scale of things.  Our hope is Jesus Christ, our belief is that Christ is the real context of our life.  We may suffer in this life, yet in faith we are never separated from Christ even in times of distress or sorrow or sickness.  We endeavor to keep ourselves in Christ so that we can always be united to God, to that bigger picture of which this world is only a tiny part.  It is this bigger perspective – the eternity of the Kingdom – that gives us hope in our current moment

Many of the original twelve disciples of Christ made a living by catching fish – they  sought out fish in the sea, trying to discover where the fish were so they could catch them.    Jesus promised to make them into fishers of men rather than fishers of fish.  In other words, He promised to redirect their life and work to seek out people and to work for God not just for themselves.  Jesus wants us also to produce a harvest for Him – to seek out people and bring them into the church.   The words of Jesus, “follow me”, are spoken to you.  Jesus invites you to follow Him and you do that by seeking out other people to join you in your Christian life.

We however often persist in following our own dreams and our own way forgetting the concerns of Christ and the Gospel.  We build our dreams, but then sometimes a tornado comes along and teaches us how fragile and temporary life is.  Some of the tornadoes are meteorological events, other tornadoes are simply people in our lives.  Sometimes in these events we are forced to look at the fact that we have been devoting our lives to build things that are temporary rather than eternal or permanent.

Jesus says, “Come, follow me” and I will give you something permanent – eternal life.  Not a house that can be broken into or blown away by a tornado, but a room in the heavenly mansion.   Not a catch of fish, but an entire kingdom.

And Peter said, “Lo, we have left our homes and followed you.” And he said to them, “Truly, I say to you, there is no man who has left house or wife or brothers or parents or children, for the sake of the kingdom of God, who will not receive manifold more in this time, and in the age to come eternal life.”  (Luke 18:28-30)

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Therefore do not worry, saying, ‘What shall we eat?’ or ‘What shall we drink?’ or ‘What shall we wear?’ For after all these things the Gentiles seek. For your heavenly Father knows that you need all these things.  But seek first the kingdom of God and His righteousness, and all these things shall be added to you.  (Matthew 6:32-33)

St. Gregory Palamas comments:

When the Lord, on account of the inexpressible ocean of His mercy, appeared on earth as a man to heal the diseases of our soul and take away the sin of the world, He also healed those diseases which the law specified as unclean. So if anyone considers such illnesses to be really impurity and sin, let him confess the one who delivers men from them as God. If, however, he rightly takes such afflictions as symbols of actual uncleanness and transgression, let him understand from the things Christ accomplished in respect of these symbols, that He is truly the one who has power to forgive and cleanse the sin of the world.

It would, in my opinion, also be correct and truthful to say something else. The Lord exhorts us to seek after spiritual things – “Seek ye first the kingdom of God”, he says, “and his righteousness” – and when we look for what is beneficial for our souls and brings salvation, he also promises to supply our bodies’ needs, saying, “And all these things shall be added to you” (Matt. 6:33). In the same way, when He graciously willed to bow the heavens and come down from on high to our lowest state, in order to cleanse us from our sins, He granted in addition that the lame should be put back on their feet, the blind see and the lepers be cleansed, and simply healed all our bodily sicknesses and diseases, as He is rich in mercy. (The Homilies, pp. 503-504)

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