St. Paul in his letter to the Christians in Rome says: ‘If you confess with your lips that Jesus is Lord, and if you believe in your heart that God raised him from the dead, then you will be saved.” (Rom. 10:9) On the surface it sounds like an easy formula. Indeed you sometimes hear people say: ‘just confess that Jesus is Lord and you have done all you need to do for salvation. You are assured of being in God’s good grace and can be confident that you will be going to heaven’.

 

Of course we know that there is much more to it than that. We would call such shallow thinking ‘cheap grace’ as did Dietrich Bonhoeffer the famous German pastor who lived during the time of the reign of the Nazis. He experienced the price of expensive grace when he was executed for speaking against the evils of nationalism. It is common to see cheap grace being sold on street corners, religious T.V. shows and in many churches across the land. A warped version of the gospel promising prosperity. Yet Jesus never says anything in the gospels about wealth coming our way as a result of following him. Though he does say: ”my yoke is easy and my burden is light”, he also warns would-be disciples that the way of the cross lies on the road ahead.

 

St. Paul’s statement concerning confession of faith in Christ means much more than a verbal or even intellectual assent. He continues: “If you believe God raised him from the dead…”. And this is central to Paul’s thinking as he states elsewhere: “If Christ was not raised from the dead, our faith is in vain.” (1 Cor. 15:17) Again this means more than just saying ‘I believe in the resurrection’. It also means belief in Christ’s divinity, the center of Christian faith. It means belief in him as messiah, belief in him as teacher of God’s way of salvation for the world. It means believing that he is the ultimate and full revelation of who God is. “If you have seen me you have seen the Father.” (John 14:19) It means that Christ’s revelation of what God is like, and what God’s will is for humankind, supersedes anyone else’s teaching of who God is and what God desires of us. It means that all of Christ’s teachings whether by word or deed can be fully trusted and fully implemented. The living example of the canonized saints, the writings of theologians and the words of spiritual teachers help us to learn how to implement the teachings of Christ, but only in so far as they faithfully expound on those teachings and do not contradict or deny them.

 

At one point in his travels with the disciples, after he had been with them for quite a while, Jesus asked them: “Who do people say that I am?” (Matt16:13-20) Everything in Christianity, everything in each of our lives depends on the answer to this question. Peter’s answer is our answer: “You are the messiah, the son of the living God”. The disciples had to be at a point where they could accept Jesus absolutely and unconditionally as messiah, revealer of God’s way because Jesus was about to reveal to them the way of God’s salvation for each individually and for the whole world. All of the disciples likely agreed with Peter’s statement. For the text says next that Jesus began to speak to them about how he would save the world. In effect he said this: ‘My Father’s plan is that I am going to go to Jerusalem and they are going to reject and crucify me. But I am going to endure it and give love in return. And as my disciples, you who believe that I am the messiah, the revealer of God’s way, must do the same. You must take up the cross and follow me. Whatever happens to you as a result of the sin, ignorance, blindness and evil of the world, you are to love back. Return good for the evil you are given. And that is how the world will be saved’. And we see that that is precisely what the disciples did. They were persecuted and endured it, returning forgiveness and Christ-like love. The disciples and the martyrs of the early Church knew that they were contributing to God’s redemptive work by doing as Jesus said to do. In this sense they viewed it as a privilege to love their enemies as they were being destroyed by them. They were contributing to the coming of God’s kingdom ‘on earth as it is in heaven’. As disciples of Christ we have the same opportunity. We can chose to fully trust in God’s way: to forgive those who mistreat us, to return love those who are mean spirited and unkind, to participate with gratitude in God’s way of salvation. We may never face the prospect of total physical martyrdom, but the daily returning of love for non-love is a form of martyrdom. It is difficult and requires total faith in believing that Jesus is indeed who he claims to be, and in what he has revealed to be God’s way. Knowing that we are contributing to God’s plan of salvation can act as an incentive that sees us through the difficulty. We can proceed with joy then, knowing we are doing our best to be faithful to Christ. We can confidently share in Peter’s confession: ‘You are the Christ, the savior of the world’.   +AMEN

You who love instruction, and are eager to listen, receive once again the sacred words: delight yourselves in the honey of wisdom; for so it is written, “Good words are honeycombs, and their sweetness is the healing of the soul.” For the labour of the bees is very sweet, and benefits in many ways the soul of man: but the divine and saving (honey) makes those in whom it dwells skilful in every good work, and teaches them the ways of (spiritual) improvement. Let us therefore, as I said, receive again in mind and heart the Saviour’s words. For He teaches us in what manner we ought to make our requests unto Him, in order that the act may not prove unrewarded to them who practise it; and that no one may anger God, the bestower of gifts from on high, by means of those very things by which he imagines that he shall gain some benefit. For it is written. “There is a righteous man, who perishes in his righteousness.”

 

For see, I pray, an instance of this clearly painted, so to speak, in the parable set before us. One who prayed is condemned because he did not offer his prayer wisely. “For two men, it says, went up unto the temple to pray, the one a Pharisee, and the other a publican.” And here we must admire the wise arrangement of Christ our common Saviour, in all things whatsoever He does and says. For by the parable previously read to us, He called us to diligence, and to the duty of offering prayer constantly: for the Evangelist said, “And He spoke unto them also a parable, to the intent that men ought always to pray, and must not grow weary.” Having then urged them to diligence in constant prayer, yet, as I said, lest by doing so sedulously but without discretion, we should enrage Him Whom we supplicate, He very excellently shows us in what way we ought to be diligent in prayer. “Two men then, He says, went up unto the temple to pray.” Observe here, I pray, the impartiality and entire fairness of the unerring Nature: for He calls those who were praying men, since He looks not so much at wealth or power; but regarding their natural equality, He considers all those who dwell upon earth as men, and as in no respect different from one another.

 

And what then was the manner of their prayer? “The Pharisee, it says, prayed thus to himself. God, I thank You that I am not like the rest of mankind, extortioners, unjust, adulterers, or as this publican.” Many at once are the faults of the Pharisee: for first of all he is boastful, and without sense; for he praises himself, although the sacred Scripture cries aloud, “Let a neighbour praise you, and not your own mouth: a stranger and not your own lips.” But, O excellent sir, one may well say to him, Behold, those who live in the practice of good and holy actions, as any one may see, are not very ready to listen to the words of flatterers: yes, and even if men extol them, they often are covered with shame, and drop their eyes to the ground, and beg silence of those that praise them. But this shameless Pharisee praises and extols himself because he is better than extortioners, and the unjust, and adulterers. But how did it escape your notice, that a man’s being better than the bad does not necessarily and of course prove him to be worthy of admiration: but that to vie with those who habitually excel, is a noble and honourable thing, and admits a man into the number of those who are justly praised.

 

Our virtue therefore must not be contaminated with fault, but must be single-minded and blameless, and free from all that can bring reproach. For what profit is there in fasting twice in the week, if your so doing serve only as a pretext for ignorance and vanity, and make you supercilious and haughty, and selfish? You tithe your possessions, and make a boast thereof: but you in another way provoke God’s anger, by condemning men generally on this account, and accusing others; and you are yourself puffed up, though not crowned by the divine decree for righteousness, but heap, on the contrary, praises upon yourself. “For I am not, he says, as the rest of mankind.” Moderate yourself, O Pharisee: “put a door to your tongue, and a lock.” You speak to God Who knows all things. Await the decree of the Judge. None of those skilled in the practice of wrestling ever crowns himself: nor does any man receive the crown of himself, but awaits the summons of the arbiter. Lower your pride: for arrogance is both accursed and hated by God. Although therefore you fast with puffed up mind, your so doing will not avail you: your labour will be unrewarded; for you have mingled dung with your perfume. Even according to the law of Moses a sacrifice that had a blemish was not capable of being offered to God: for it was said unto him, “Of sheep, and ox, that is offered for sacrifice, there must be no blemish therein.” Since therefore your fasting is accompanied by pride, you must expect to hear God saying, “This is not the fast that I have chosen, says the Lord.” You offer tithes: but you wrong in another way Him Who is honoured by you, in that you condemn men generally. This is an act foreign to the mind that fears God: for Christ even said, “Judge not, and you shall not be judged: condemn not, and you shall not be condemned.” And one also of His disciples said, “There is one Lawgiver, and Judge: why then do you judge your neighbour?” No man because he is in health ridicules one who is sick for being laid up and bedridden: rather he is afraid, lest perchance he become himself the victim of similar sufferings. Nor does any man in battle, because another has fallen, praise himself for having escaped from misfortune. For the infirmity of others is not a fit subject for praise for those who are in health: nay, even if any one be found of more than usually vigorous health, even then scarcely does he gain glory thereby. Such then was the state of the self-loving Pharisee.

 

But what of the publican? He stood, it says, “afar off,” not even venturing, so to speak, to raise up his eyes on high. You see him abstaining from all boldness of speech, as having no right thereto, and smitten by the reproaches of conscience: for he was afraid of being even seen by God, as one who had been careless of His laws, and had led an unchaste and dissolute life. You see also that by his external manner, he accuses his own depravity. For the foolish Pharisee stood there bold and broad, lifting up his eyes without scruple, bearing witness of himself, and boastful. But the other feels shame at his conduct: he is afraid of his Judge, he smites upon his breast, he confesses his offences, he shows his malady as to the Physician, he prays that he may have mercy. And what is the result? Let us hear what the Judge says, “This man, He says, went down to his house justified rather than the other.”

 

Let us therefore “pray without ceasing,” according to the expression of the blessed Paul: but let us be careful to do so aright. The love of self is displeasing to God, and He rejects empty haughtiness and a proud look, puffed up often on account of that which is by no means excellent. And even if a man be good and sober, let him not on this account suffer himself to fall away into shameful pride: but rather let him remember Christ, Who says to the holy apostles, “When you have done all those things, those namely which have been commanded you, say, We are unprofitable servants, we have done that which was our duty to do.” For we owe unto God over all, as from the yoke of necessity, the service of slaves, and ready obedience in all things. Yes, though you lead an excellent and elect life, don’t exact wages from the Lord; but rather ask of Him a gift. As being good, He will promise it you: as a loving Father, He will aid you. Restrain not yourself then from saying, “God be merciful to me the sinner.” Remember Him Who says by the voice of Isaiah, “Declare you your sins first, that you may be justified:” remember too that He rebukes those who will not do so, and says, “Behold, I have a judgment against you, because you say 560 ‘I have not sinned’.” Examine the words of the saints: for one says, “The righteous is the accuser of himself in the beginning of his words.” And another again, “I said, I will confess against myself my transgression unto the Lord: and you forgave the iniquity of my heart.”

 

What answer then will those make to this, who embrace the new tenets of Novatus, and say of themselves that they are pure? Whose prayer do they praise? That of the Pharisee, who acquitted himself, or that of the Publican, who accused himself? If they say that of the Pharisee, they resist the divine sentence; for he was condemned as being boastful: but if that of the Publican, why do they refuse to acknowledge their own impurity? Certainly God justifies those who know well their transgressions, and are willing to confess them: but these men will have the portion of the Pharisee.

 

We then say, that in many things we “all of us offend,” and that no man is pure from uncleanness, even though his life upon earth be but one day. Let us ask then of God mercy; which if we do, Christ will justify us: by Whom and with Whom, to God the Father, be praise and dominion, with the Holy Spirit, for ever and ever, Amen.

Sometimes people find this particular gospel to be a bit perplexing. Jesus is speaking about two different sources of light, that which is within a person and that which comes from without. His saying: “ The eye is the lamp of the body. So if your eye is sound, your whole body will be full of light. But if your eye is not sound, your whole body will be full of darkness. If then the light in you is darkness, how great is the darkness.”

 

It takes a bit of pondering to get at what the Lord is communicating here. First: “The eye is the lamp of the body.” Jesus is speaking of the the effect that our ability to perceive reality as God sees it, is dependent upon the extent of the ability of our ‘eyes’ to perceive light.” Obviously he is speaking of the ability of our spiritual eyes. Healthy spiritual eyes can see spiritual truths more readily than damaged or undeveloped interior sight.  It never ceases to amaze, the way that two people are able to view the same event or situation in opposite lights. Where it is a matter purely of opinion, this may not be a source of conflict. But where basic objective facts are concerned, both points of view cannot be equally correct. To take an example from the gospel ( Mk 3:1-6 ). Jesus saw a man in the synagogue on a Sabbath who had a withered hand. He saw a man who was suffering in need of healing. When in compassion and mercy reached out to heal him, Jesus was accused of breaking the Sabbath, since healing is a form of work and all work, as was customary, was forbidden on the Sabbath. His accusers, rather than seeing a suffering person who had found relief, saw someone who was breaking the law. Why these two drastically different visions of the same event?

 

The religious leaders who could only see a law-breaker had nurtured and steeped themselves in the minutiae of religious law, its many commentaries and interpretations. They were dedicated to the law, likely thinking that by following it in every detail, they would be pleasing to God. They had minimized the scriptural teachings of mercy and compassion as being what God most desires. They had missed the over-arching theme of scripture in their focus on the details of the law. They were not seeing correctly because they were not seeing the fundamental nature of God correctly.

 

The situation on the Southern border of the US shows this same dynamic in play today. Some are insisting that the law must be enforced, and that desperate families seeking asylum from unbearable violence in their home countries must be turned away if they enter in unofficial locations. ( Knowing they will be arrested only proves their desperation.) Even when crossing in official locations they are often turned away. Children are separated from their parents and/ or entire families are jailed for extended lengths of time. Those who enact such policies imply that law is paramount, and the pain and trauma it may cause is secondary. Yet Jesus says that love takes precedence over law where mercy and compassion are needed. Thankfully many people of faith and faith leaders are speaking out against these policies. St Paul’s admonition to obey the civil authorities in the famous Romans 13 passage, applies only in-so-far as law is in accord with the gospel. Where it is not, St Paul encourages resistance as he makes abundantly clear in much of his letter to the Romans and else where. He himself was arrested and executed as a law-breaker.

 

Secondly, Jesus continues: “ If your eye is sound your whole body will be full of light.” The religious leaders who opposed Jesus were not full of light. Instead of clarifying for the people in their care, the nature of God and what God most desires, they were vessels of darkness. Leading their flock not closer to God and God’s will, but leaving them spiritually impoverished and walking in darkness. “If your eye is not sound your whole body will be in darkness.” Not being able to see clearly themselves, they were poor guides for the people in their care. Shepherds who could not protect their flock from the wolves of error, and who prevented people from receiving the light.

 

We have all been given God’s light by virtue of having been made in the image and likeness of God. But that light needs to be nurtured and kindled or it is in danger of flickering out. It is fanned and made brighter by correct teaching, and correct example in accord with what the Lord taught in word and deed. If the God-given light within, the gift of the image and likeness of God is not nurtured, then our ability to see reality as God sees it is negatively impacted. So that not only do we not have that natural inner light, but light from outside is hindered from entering. Our spiritual eyes are no longer sound, we cannot see rightly. Hence the Lord says: “If the light within you is darkness, how great is the darkness.” There is no light within or from without. This is profound insight which the Lord is sharing. It explains to a great extent why things are the way they are, why people behave the way they do, why the world around us functions the way it does. Its all matter of how much each person can see. How spiritually mature each one of us is. How high a level of spiritual consciousness we have attained. Because we will act according to how we see. All our decisions and choices will be based on the degree to which we perceive the ‘true light’. And this has enormous consequences for everyone. Spiritual blindness can cause us to see something as good which in reality it may be foreign to God. Spiritual blindness can make us sure that we are right when we are not. Clearly this was the case with Jesus’ opponents.

 

How then to be sure that we are seeing rightly, that our spiritual eyes are sound? This is a great question, a great problem in human existence. The Lord himself could not persuade many to see aright. How can we help ourselves and others to see? Perhaps we could consider the oft misunderstood virtue of humility as a starting point. True humility is to acknowledge that, compared to all that there is to be known, we know very little. Even with much education and advanced degrees, any one person knows only a small amount of reality. If we can start from a perspective of humility, we give space to the Holy Spirit to further enlighten us, to bring us a deeper understanding. Humility keeps us from immediately shutting down or getting defensive when previously held of views are challenged. Humility keeps us open to growth. The pride of many of the religious leaders of Jesus day caused them to react with anger and fear at the new information Christ was communicating. Pride cannot admit that it does not already know. Pride cannot accept that perhaps one has been mistaken in one’s prior assumptions.

 

Anyone who aspires to be a disciple of Christ would like to be a vessel of light, both for the sake of one’s own salvation and as a means of God’s salvific love toward others. We are that vessel, that light, as much as we keep our hearts open to the promptings of the Holy Spirit. Our goal then is to see more clearly, that all within us and without may be illumined with the bright light of God’s truth, God’s love.     +AMEN

Many Christians today are unfamiliar with the mindset of Christians in the first three centuries of the Christian era. This time period is often referred to as ‘the early Church’. It is of course the time historically closest to Jesus himself. And the social and cultural conditions under which the Christians of that period lived were much the same throughout the first three hundred years of the Christian Era. That is, for the most part they lived under the rule of the Roman Empire. Many spoke the same languages and many endured the persecutions of those early centuries. For them, arrest and execution, were a lived experience. They knew first and second hand what scourging and crucifixion were. Most modern Christians know them only as an abstraction. We have to use our imagination or read accounts of execution or watch a film to obtain some degree of understanding of what they were. It is not a living reality for the vast majority of modern Christians. It is instructive then to read through the writings of this early period to see how Christians coped with this very difficult situation. After all, it was just not adult men and women who were dragged into the courts and arenas but often children and elderly. What kind of guidance did the Church leadership and early writers offer?

 

It would be correct to assume that any guidance offered would be solidly based in the gospel accounts of Jesus’ teachings. While the four gospels were not yet part of an organized canon, they were in circulation and well known. As followers of Christ, the Church leaders and writers would naturally view the crisis of persecution through the lens of Christ himself, both in his actual words and in his deeds. After all Jesus had passed through the ordeal of arrest, torture and crucifixion, one of the worst possible executions devised by twisted human minds. It is a well known belief in Christian doctrine that the voluntary death of Jesus, freed the human race from the bondage of death. By his death Christ trampled down death. Humanity had become trapped in a downward spiral of evil and death and all the negative effects that accompanied it. Jesus, the sinless one, encountered death, although undeserving of it, and shattered the stranglehold it had on the human race. Because of Christ’s sacrifice, it is now possible for all humans to escape the tragic pathways of death. But the question could legitimately be asked: “Is it only the death of Christ that was required to achieve this victory?”. If so, could not his death at the hands of Herod when he was an infant have accomplished the same outcome? Or perhaps could he have just died of old age? Or was it his endurance of the worst that humanity could dish out and his returning of love for hate and rejection the determinative factor? “Father forgive them” Jesus uttered on the cross, stands out as the pivotal key to the destruction of evil and death. Evil and death cannot survive in the face of love. Love undoes their power.

 

This being so, Jesus’ commandment to love one’s enemies becomes paramount. Returning injury for injury, ‘eye for eye, tooth for tooth’ shows itself powerless to defeat evil and death. Only the return of love for hate, enemy love, can restore creation to God’s original intention. To return injury for injury can only perpetuate the cycle of violence and counter violence, which is largely the story of human history. The early Christians would have been well aware of this dynamic because of being so close historically to the teaching of Jesus and the cultural conditions in which they were uttered. In the early Christian writings we find encouragement to endure the ‘ordeal’ imitating Christ in love for the persecutors, and the assurance that life in this world does not end at the grave but continues eternally. Christian’s ability to face persecution was firmly grounded in the belief of eternal life or what could be called eternal survival. This belief could enable one to overcome the natural fear of death by remembering Christ’s promise of the indestructibility of genuine love. Evil and death hold no sway over Christ-like love. The early Christians realized that love in the face of evil and hatred were God’s way of accomplishing the salvation of the world. For them, it was not a minor element of the gospel, a back burner issue, but the core of God’s plan of salvation.

 

The early Christian writers exhibit no sign of supporting retaliation for the violence inflicted on Christians nor do they call for self defense even in the face of the arrest and persecution of entire families. There is not even a sentence in the early writings attempting to justify Christian retaliation for the horrors being visited on them. From the modern perspective this seems surprising given our natural tendency to want to protect the innocent. Apparently the early Christians believed strongly enough in Christ’s commands to carry them out even though they might not have totally understood how their faithfulness would bring about God’s reign on Earth. The concept of enemy love as God’s method of salvation was so apparent to the early Church leadership, that guidelines of behavior were taught in regards to Christian participation in the military. Because of the fact that one would have been expected to engage in killing of enemies in battle, the military career was seen as incompatible with the clear teachings of Christ. Catechumens were informed that they would have to withdraw from Christian initiation if they decided to join the military. Converts already in the military were told that if commanded to kill they must tell their commanding officers that it was forbidden for them. And if the result was martyrdom, they were to accept it as faithful followers of Christ. Some have made the case that it was only pagan religious practices that deterred Christians from participating in the military. But clearly it was also the teachings of Jesus on enemy love that prevented them from viewing military service as acceptable. While there were instances of Christians disobeying Christ’s clear commands regarding love of enemies in the early Church, there was no attempt to justify it by Church leadership. It was seen as failure and confessed as such.

 

This situation continued until the gradual diminishment of Christian consciousness in regards to enemy love beginning in the early 4th century. From an outlaw religion where Christians were forbidden to participate in the military, Christianity was first legalized by the Roman government and eventually became the recognized State religion. By the early 5th century only Christians could participate in the military. Pagans were no longer welcome. The prohibition against killing by the Church was relegated to only the clergy. And it was at this time that Augustine began to develop what became known as the Christian just war theory. (CJWT) The tenets of CJWT are not based on Jesus’ teachings in the gospels but are proposed as the conditions which are considered necessary in order to declare an exception to those teachings. In examining the many wars throughout history, which have often been declared as just by both sides of a given conflict, none of them have been shown to have met all the conditions of CJWT. For instance, the protection of non-combatants in a conflict is a primary requirement of CJWT, yet in nearly all wars of the 20th century, noncombatants have been the majority of those killed. In any case, the Orthodox Church has never officially accepted CJWT. It has mainly been promoted by Western

Churches. The Orthodox Church views all war, even wars considered to be self-defensive, to be the product of sinful people unable or unwilling to resolve their conflicts peacefully. All war is sin in the view of the Church, although one could argue that in practice the Orthodox Church accepts CJWT. Since the 4th century it has not only permitted but blessed its members to participate in their country’s wars. There are prayers in our service books not only for the blessing of soldiers going off to war, but clergy have been known to sprinkle holy water on collections of military guns, tanks, bombers and even submarines equipped with enough nuclear missiles to lay waste large portions of the planet. Who today is aware that the Church considers all war to be sin? And in what other sin does the Church bless its members to participate? Which raises the question of why give a blessing only to participation in this sin and no other. Could it be that our love of country, our nationalism, has overshadowed our first loyalty to Christ and his clear commands? Have we lost that clear commitment that the early Christians displayed with such fortitude? No one in the Orthodox Church to my knowledge has offered a cogent response to these questions or hardly even asked them. It is as if they are minor issues or even non-issues rather than central to the gospel as Jesus taught it and the early Christians lived it. And if enemy love is the heart and soul of the gospel, could our failure to clearly proclaim it, to teach it to our members and the larger world, be largely responsible for the anemic witness that we present to the world at large? If we live by the same value system that everyone else does when it comes to fighting our countries’ wars, how is anyone to distinguish us as followers of Christ? The idea that one can love one’s enemies while trying to kill them on the battle field is illusory. Anyone would know, who has been in battle, that when the bullets start flying, self preservation and protection of one’s friends is the dominant mode.

 

We lament the shrinking of our churches but have we considered that they would grow, like the early Christian churches grew, when people observed the astonishing spectacle of Christians willing to give their lives in love for their enemies? Or when they heard words of love and forgiveness in the midst of terrible suffering? Or when they saw the Christian’s strong faith in eternal survival that gave them the willingness to sacrifice survival in this world? These are vital questions that go to the heart of our faith. They ultimately ask us how much trust we place in Christ. Are we willing, like the early Christians, to place all our trust in Christ even if we don’t fully understand how our faithfulness will bring about God’s reign on earth? Or will we continue to live in fear of losing our short time on Earth and try to find excuses for not obeying the One who can truly be trusted?

 

PTSD, frequent suicide, homelessness, addictions and domestic violence of many war veterans are signs of the spiritual damage that participation in warfare does. Yet we seldom warn our young people who are considering a military career of these dangers. As pastoral care-takers, we certainly have a duty to warn them of the spiritual dangers they face, to give them the true teaching of the Church and of our Lord in the gospels, so that they will be dissuaded from choosing this path. It is good that we help those who have been spiritually injured by war but it is much better to prevent the injury in the first place by steering those God has placed in our care away from this grave spiritual danger. And for those who choose a military career because they see few other options to escape poverty, we need to develop viable alternatives and to address the systemic forms of economic injustice that make the military seem their only option. It is likely that the governments of the world would not react positively to Christian Churches or a large part of them regaining the stance of the early Church by prohibiting its members from participating in their militaries. We would likely face a similar situation of persecution that the early Christians did. Yet we would know that we were doing all that we can to fulfill Christ’s commandments, trusting that God would use our faithfulness to bring about God’s reign in God’s own good time and in God’s own good way. Certainly this is a worthwhile use of the short time we have been given on Earth.     +AMEN

 

 

PENTECOST- THE COMING OF THE ONE WHO ENABLES US

Penta means 50. The feast of Pentecost is celebrated 50 days after the feast of Pascha and on the Jewish calendar, 50 days after the feast of Passover. The Jewish feast celebrates both the Spring harvest and the giving of the Law to Moses on Mt. Sinai. The Law is seen as giving life to the Spirit in the same way that food crops give life to the body.

What is the significance of the number 50? In biblical literature, 7 is a perfect number. 7 x 7 = 49 which would be perfection times perfection. 50 is 49 + 1, ultimate perfection. For the Jewish people the giving of the Law is the ultimate and perfect act of God because it is the guide and foundation of spiritual life. For Christians, the giving of the Holy Spirit on Pentecost is God’s ultimate act in human history. It is seen as the completion of God’s giving of Himself to save the world.

The human race and the entire cosmos were thrown off track when humanity turned away from the source of its being, God, in the event known as the ‘fall’. The world became lost and confused because it had determined to pursue its path in life without reference to God or His will. The Tower of Babel represents the height of this rebellion where humans became totally wrapped up in their own hubris and pride with the consequent result of even greater confusion and chaos. The Tower of Babel represents the fruit of the ‘fall’: the human race becomes unable to communicate coherently as expressed in the confusion of tongues. This becomes both a self-earned punishment but also a check on the ability of the human race to inflict even more damage on itself. The confusion of tongues is a limitation on the ill effects of human ambition apart from God.

The Christian feast of Pentecost celebrates God’s restoration of the broken human situation as represented in each person in that the various nations were able to understand Peter in their own native language. This is the work of the Holy Spirit given to the disciples which fills them with courage. They become the announcers of God’s gracious act.

The two icons which perhaps most clearly show God’s efforts on behalf of the human race, are the icons of the Resurrection and Pentecost. In the first we see Christ, not coming out of the tomb, but descending to Hades which represents the iron grip that death had gotten hold on humanity as a result of its attempt to live a life without reference to God. There we see Christ shattering the gates of this imprisonment and lifting humankind out of its trap as represented in the figures of Adam and Eve. This icon is the icon of the feast of Pascha, but the event itself is commemorated not on Pascha but on Holy Saturday, the day before Pascha. Christ’s work of freeing humanity was completed even before He rose from the dead. God sent His Son to teach us how to live according to His will, so that in encountering death, Christ in His perfect love and divinity, could shatter it and all its manifestations. Interestingly, the icon of Pascha does

not show Christ coming out of the tomb, but shattering the gates of human imprisonment.

The Pentecost icon and all icons do not claim to be historically accurate depictions of persons or events. Rather they are depicting the inner spiritual reality within an historical reality. The Pentecost event was a real historical event, but the icon attempts to show what is going on below the surface.

There are three semi-circles depicted in the icon. At the top we see a semi-circle of blue light with rays of fire emanating from it and resting on the heads of the disciples. This represents the Holy Spirit descending on the apostles who are empowered to preach the gospel of peace which will restore the strife created by the confusion of tongues at the tower of Babel. The tongues of fire over the apostles’ heads have a cleansing and healing effect on both themselves and those who are open to receiving the healing words that they teach. Whereas Babel broke down human relationships, Pentecost heals the enmity between people.

The second semi-circle is the apostles themselves in the arrangement of their seating. They face one another in unity and love. The peace they share with one another will emanate outwards and spread to all lands and peoples. In their hands they hold the scrolls containing the words of the Lord which they are commissioned to share with all.

At the bottom of the icon is a figure wearing a crown and holding a tray with scrolls. He represents Cosmos or the World and emerges from the dark semi-circle into the light. The world receives the Word from the Apostles and is enabled to come out of the darkness in which it dwells into the light of union with God.

Perhaps the two greatest acts of God in human history are the sending of His Son who by death and resurrection shattered the grip which death had on the human race, and the sending of His Holy Spirit who enables us to live the new life that Christ has made possible.

Pentecost is not technically the birth of the Church. The Church existed before time because Christ is the eternal head of the Church. The Church is made manifest in time at Pentecost. Pentecost is the fulfillment of the Church and shows what the Church is called to be: a community of Christ’s followers at peace with and in unity with one another. They are to be filled with the grace and power of the Holy Spirit. They are to bring this peace, joy and unity to the whole human race by a process of repentance and inner change in which they themselves engage, and which they call their listeners to engage in.

The Holy Spirit enables the Church to be Christ’s light on the Earth and to be articulate in preaching the gospel. The Holy Spirit gives the necessary clarity so that people can understand and see the consistency between the spoken Word and the behavior of Christ’s disciples.

We have an understandable tendency to view the failings of the members of the Church, in particular its leaders, as being representative of what the Church itself is. And indeed this is a major stumbling block for people both within and outside the Church. It would be easier for everyone to see the presence of Christ in the Church if all of its members were more closely and consistently conformed to the person of Christ Himself. However, the Church is made up of people who have not reached perfection, but are working towards perfection. And in that effort, they sometimes mis-understand or even deny the Way of Christ. Yet all are welcome to come into the Church and join in the struggle to become faithful to the fullness of Christ’s gospel. But however far the members of the Church may fall short of that total faithfulness, the inner truth of the Church remains pure and unchanged, because Christ Himself remains pure and unchanged. We must make the effort to view the Church as the bearer of Christ’s eternal truths, and not the failure of its members to fully live out those truths.

The icon of Pentecost shows what the Church truly is: What Christ calls it to be, and what we strive to become. And the more like this true Church that we become the better witness we will be to our suffering world, so much in need of the healing which God offers.

Some people ask: do we really need the Church. Why not just try to follow Christ on our own? And Christian experience would respond that yes, we do indeed need the Church because we need one another’s help in the process of learning to be faithful disciples of Christ. And the Church is God’s chosen vessel of His grace. When we cut ourselves off from the Church, we cut ourselves off from a very potent source of God’s grace. The Church, despite its limited and often failing leaders and members, is the means of God’s mercy and salvation. This is not to say that God does not work outside the confines of the Church, as “the Holy Spirit blows where it will” and God loves all people. But once we have experienced the grace that is operative in the Church, we are at a loss when we exclude it from our lives.

The feast of Pentecost is a celebration and thanks giving for the sublime gift of God’s Holy Spirit. We ask God’s help to allow that gift to penetrate us that we may become all that God intends us to be.    +AMEN