Friday, May 28, 2010

There are two ways, one of life and one of death

These are the first words of a document titled, “The Didache of the Holy Apostles” which outlines some of the very earliest teachings given to the Church by the Holy Apostles of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ. The Apostles continue: “but a great difference between the two ways.” The Didache (or teaching) is a document held with great honor in the Church because it gives us a glimpse into the ancient Church structure and way of life. There are sixteen chapters in all covering topics from how to avoid sin to how to celebrate the Eucharist.

The month of June every year is a month dedicated to the Holy Apostles. Beginning with the Monday after All Saints (this year May 31) and lasting until the Feast of the Holy Apostles on June 30 the Church asks us to fast in honor of the Holy Apostles and work they accomplished in establishing the Church of Christ after being guided “into all truth” (John 16.13) by the Holy Spirit who descended upon the Church at Pentecost.

During every Divine Liturgy we confess, “One Holy Catholic and Apostolic Church” as we recite the Nicene-Constantinopolitan Creed. To be the Apostolic Church means that the Orthodox Church has maintained the Holy Traditions of the Apostles as handed down from Bishop to Bishop through Apostolic Succession and the physical Laying on of Hands at ordination. Saint Paul said, “Now I praise you, brethren, that you remember me in all things and keep the traditions just as I delivered them to you.” (1 Corinthians 11.2) and again he said, “Therefore, brethren, stand fast and hold the traditions which you were taught, whether by word or our epistle.” (2 Thessalonians 2.15)

Jesus Christ ordained His Disciples with authority to establish the Church when He ascended to His Throne. “All authority has been given to Me in heaven and on earth. Go therefore and make disciples of all the nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, teaching them to observe all things that I have commanded you; and lo, I am with you always, even to the end of the age.” (Matthew 28.18-20)

Jesus commanded the Holy Apostles to teach us. The Holy Spirit guided them into all truth. They have passed on “the way of life” to us through the Church. We follow Saint Paul’s commanded to keep those traditions. This is what it means to be One, Holy, Catholic and Apostolic Church….to follow on the way of life.

Thursday, May 27, 2010

“But I say to you that whoever looks at a woman to lust for her has already committed adultery with her in his heart.” (Matthew 5.28)

These words from our Lord are very difficult to hear especially in our 2010 context in which lust and physical pleasure are not to be seen as sinful by “society”. By today’s standards men and women are encouraged to freely experience their sexual passions with each other. Lust is a word not used by those who seek to normalize abnormal sexual tendencies and urges. And those who would suggest that physical sexual pleasure is to be subdued are considered old fashioned and out of touch with reality. Schools teach “safe sex” rather than “no sex” because ultimately “they are going to do it anyway.” But we cannot escape the commandment of our Lord that lust for another is no better than actually engaging in the behavior. This of course also plays a strong role in the dangers of pornography as people sit in the privacy of their own homes in front of their computers lusting after those displayed on their monitors.

But sexuality is not the only issue at hand in today’s Gospel reading. (Matthew 5.27-32) It is our responsibility to control our passions rather than give in to them. We live in a fallen world and are therefore tempted daily by the evil one to depart from our path toward God and theosis. Our Lord said, “If anyone desires to come after Me, let him deny himself, and take up his cross daily, and follow Me.” (Luke 9.23 Matthew 16.24, Mark 8.35,) Our struggle to follow the Lord is a daily struggle and the Church offers us spiritual tools (disciplines) that help us to take control and maintain control of our physical passions.

When we embrace the spiritual discipline of fasting we are engaged in much more than a holy diet. When we fast, we place our spiritual journey ahead of our physical desires. “For whoever desires to save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for My sake will save it.” (Luke 9.24) Another fasting season is almost upon us and we are yet again encouraged to step our spiritual struggle to defeat our passions. Beginning Monday, May 31, 2010, and ending with the Feast of the Holy Apostles on June 30, 2010, the Church teaches us to fast in honor of the Holy Apostles that received the Faith from Jesus Christ and the Holy Spirit and handed it down to the Church undefiled. The Holy Apostles taught us to “Abstain from fleshly and worldly lusts” (The Didache of the Apostles). When we fast, we indeed abstain from these, while honoring the holy work accomplished by the Holy Apostles.

Tuesday, May 25, 2010

“Unite in Prayer or Unite in Eucharist?”

While I was driving to the Church this morning after dropping my son at school, I noticed a church sign which read, “Unite in Prayer May 23,” which prompted this blog. As human beings we often speak of unity in various forms such as political unity or family unity. We, as Americans, don’t often speak of unity in terms of prayer…or at least not honestly anyway.

Unity, defined by MS Office dictionary as “the state or condition of being one,” is an expression of ontological reality – unity is a matter of being rather than action or thought. For this very reason we cannot possibly unite in prayer unless we are first united in Jesus Christ. It is the unity of the Church that the Lord Himself desires when He prays:

“I do not pray for these alone, but also for those who will believe in Me through their word; that they all may be one, as You, Father, are in Me, and I in You; that they also may be one in Us, that the world may believe that You sent Me. And the glory which You gave Me I have given them, that they may be one just as We are one: I in them, and You in Me; that they may be made perfect in one, and that the world may know that You have sent Me, and have loved them as You have loved Me.” (John 17.20-23)
We are united to Jesus Christ, and therefore His Father, in the Eucharist. “He who eats My flesh and drinks My blood abides in Me and I in him.” (John 6.56) This real physical unity with Christ is what drives all theology of the Orthodox Church. If unity with Jesus Christ is what unites us to God, then who Jesus Christ IS matters. It is not simply enough to proclaim Jesus Christ; we must be in unity with Him. Jesus Christ didn’t become human to atone for our sins; He became a human being to unite Himself to humanity and restore our fallen human nature to its original glory – communion with God.

Can we unite in prayer to Jesus Christ? It might be better to suggest “Synchronization in Prayer,” since this is what I believe the church I passed on the street meant to say. However that still does not address who the Jesus IS that we are praying to. Muslims believe in a Jesus. Mormons believe in a Jesus. Jehovah’s Witnesses believe in a Jesus. Most notably even the devil believes in Jesus Christ as the Son of God. But would we be willing to term any of these groups as Christians? Jesus said, “Not everyone who says to Me, Lord, Lord, shall enter the kingdom of heaven, but he who does the will of My Father in heaven.” (Matthew 7.21)

The reality is there can only be one truth in regard to who Jesus Christ is and whether through the (albeit false) doctrine of sola scriptura or objective Church history, it is clear Jesus declared that unity was only possible in the Eucharist. The Holy Spirit descended upon the Holy Apostles at Pentecost as Comforter and guided the Church “into all truth.” (John 16.13) That original Church still exists today. It is the Orthodox Church who has maintained the teachings and traditions of the Holy Apostles unbroken for two thousand years.

Do you want to unite? Unite first to Jesus Christ and His Church.

We are Surrounded by so Great a Cloud of Witnesses - Hebrews 12.1

We began reading from Saint Paul’s Letter to the Romans today as we look back at Pentecost and look ahead to the Sunday of All Saints. Liturgically we see to completion of the Church established with the descent of the Holy Spirit and NOW our work can begin. Remember that Jesus told His disciples to wait in Jerusalem when He said, “Behold, I send the Promise of My Father upon you; but tarry in the city of Jerusalem until you are endued with power from on high.” (Luke 24.49) Now that the Church had received the Holy Spirit the work of going to “all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, teaching them to observe all things”(Matthew 28.19-20) can begin. We are IN THIS PHASE of the Church’s mission. We are called to go out and proclaim this saving message, The Gospel of Christ.

Saint Paul reminds us today that we are all “called to be saints.” (Romans 1.7) We are each called to a life of dedication and commitment to Jesus Christ our Savior. Too often we think to ourselves or even say, “I’m not a saint. How can I be expected to behave that way? Nobody is perfect!” While nobody is perfect, we are expected to live a certain lifestyle as Christians even though we will make mistakes and fall. Saint John the Theologian says, “If we say that we have no sin, we deceive ourselves, and the truth is not in us. If we confess our sins, He is faithful and just to forgive us our sins and to cleanse us from all unrighteousness.” (1 John 1.8-9)

Being a saint is not being perfect. Rather it is being dedicated to God above all other things. When we deny God and embrace worldly praises or rewards or benefits above those of God, then we become sinners worthy of death. “Do not love the world or the things in the world. If anyone loves the world, the love of the Father is not in him. For all that is in the world – the lust of the flesh, the lust of the eyes, and the pride of life – is not of the Father but is of the world. And the world is passing away, and the lust of it; but he who does the will of God abides forever.” (1 John 1.15-17)

Heed the urging of Saint Paul and commit your life to Christ! Confess your sins to the Church and “know that the Son of God has come and has given us an understanding, that we may know Him who is true; and we are in Him who is true, in His Son Jesus Christ. This is the true God and eternal life.” (1 John 5.20) Find an Orthodox Christian Church near you and embark upon the journey to salvation in the ancient Christian Church, in the Holy Orthodox Church.

“Therefore, since we are surrounded by so great a cloud of witnesses, let us also lay aside every weight, and sin which clings so closely, and let us run with perseverance the race that is set before us, looking to Jesus the pioneer and perfection of our faith.” (Hebrews 12.1-2)

Sunday, May 16, 2010

Do You Want to Live Forever? Then Get to Know Jesus

The world is an ever-shrinking place. It almost never fails that when I am visiting another city I am asked, “Do you know ‘so-and-so’?” This actually happened to me once in Melbourne, Australia. I was staying with a family that had heard of Denver, Colorado and asked if I knew someone they had met from Denver. I politely informed them that there were over 3 million people who lived in Denver and that we had never met. At the other end of the spectrum I often meet Greek Orthodox Christians who ask me if I know of a certain priest of another parish or if I have ever met their cousin etc. Believe it or not, more often than not I do know the person they are speaking of. There are also roughly 3 million Greek Orthodox Christians in America so either I know a whole lot of people, or the “Greek Orthodox World” isn’t as big as it would seem. It is no coincidence that Greek Orthodox Christians know other Greek Orthodox Christians from other cities because we share a very important common friend, Father, and God. As Orthodox Christians we live in communion with God and each other in a real, yet mystical, way. When someone asks, “Do you know Jesus?” we actually do and the universe is a huge place.

If someone were to ask us if we knew President Barak Obama or Vice President Biden most of us would say “no” because we even though we know “OF” them we have never met them. On the other hand, if I were to ask you this morning if you knew Governor Mark Sanford there is at least one of you here this morning likely to say “yes” because you have met him. And if I were to ask if you knew Senator Hugh Leatherman, most of us would say “yes” because he is a good friend to our Community. To know someone is to spend time with them and “get to know them;” something many of us have done with Senator Leatherman.

But, what if I asked, “Do you know Jesus?” Would we be able to say, with the same certainty that we did about Senator Leatherman, “yes” or would we say that we know “of” Jesus. There is a big difference between knowing “OF” someone and actually knowing them and that is what this morning’s Gospel is about. Jesus said, “This is eternal life, that they may know You, the only true God, and Jesus Christ whom You have sent.” (John 17.3) Jesus didn’t desire us to know about God but to genuinely know Him but sadly many Christians spend their entire life only having knowledge “OF” God.

Statements such as “Knowledge is power,” are nothing new. In fact Aristotle said it “first,” and the desire for knowledge was the essence of the Renaissance which launched a new era in science. Unfortunately the emphasis on intellectual knowledge rather than the mystery of God has also led science to abandon the Creator in favor of a myth simply because scientists could not “measure God.” Empirical evidence drives science rather than faith in God which ultimately has created a void because science no longer knows God let alone, about God.

We have been given a great blessing by the Creator of the universe. God has allowed us simple created human beings, sinful as we are, to know Him, not just to know about Him. When we read the Holy Scriptures, either the Old Testament or the New Testament, we find one thing very important. The Holy Scriptures are a written testament to God’s interaction WITH the Church. The Bible is a story of God’s work in and through and with humanity. The Holy Scriptures are stories of holy men and women, and some not-so-holy, who knew God. Adam and Eve walked with Him in the Garden (Genesis 3.8); Abraham hosted the Trinity for a meal (Genesis 18); Moses spoke with Him on Mount Sinai (Exodus 20); the Holy Apostles live with Him; and the Church communes with Him to this very day.

Jesus said, “He who eats My flesh and drinks My blood abides in Me, and I in him.” (John 6.56) You can’t get any closer to knowing someone than this and the Church has proclaimed this truth for two thousand years. Saint Paul said, “For as often as you eat this bread and drink this cup, you proclaim the Lord's death till He comes.” (1 Corinthians 11.26) So today, the Sunday between the Feast of Ascension and the Feast of Pentecost, the Church celebrates the Sunday of the Holy Fathers of the First Ecumenical Council. The ten days between Ascension and Pentecost represents the period of time where the Church no longer saw Jesus Christ because He had ascended to His Throne nor had the Church received the Holy Spirit which would guide the Church “into all truth.” (John 16.13) But the Church did know God. Jesus said, “Now they have known that all things which You have given Me are from You. For I have given to them the words which You have given Me; and they have received them, and have known surely that I came forth from You; and they have believed that You sent Me.” (John 17.7-8)

Today, and every day, we celebrate knowing that God is in our midst and desires to commune with us and live with us and IN us. This is what it means to have eternal life. That we know Jesus Christ is present in the chalice and that He has lowered Himself so we can know Him. Jesus Christ, the Son of God, the second person of the Holy Trinity, became a human being so we could know Him and have eternal life. We already have eternal life. It isn’t just something that we have to wait for. When Jesus Christ ascended to His Throne He brought our human nature with Him so that we could “be partakers of the divine nature.” (2 Peter 1.4)

We partake of God’s divinity each time we partake of Holy Communion. We no longer know “OF” God; we know Him personally and intimately. We have joy because for two thousand years the Church has maintained true knowledge of God. In a few moments we will sing, “We have seen the true light; we have received the heavenly Spirit; we have found the true faith, worshipping the undivided Trinity, for the Trinity has saved us.” (from the Divine Liturgy) We are thankful for the Holy Fathers who professed the Faith of the Apostles and defended the truth so our knowledge might remain strong today in 2010.

If we visit Washington, D.C. as tourists we are kept at a distance from President Obama. But if we visit Washington, D.C. as friends or even family of the President, we are invited into the White House. My brothers and sisters, we should not remain as tourists in God’s House but live as friends and the true “Children of God” (John 1.12) that we became at our Baptism and Chrismation. God has invited us in to His House to know Him but we can only do this by being in communion with Him.

In just a little while I will exit the Holy Altar with the Body and Blood of Christ and call, “With the fear of God, with faith and love, draw near.” This is God’s invitation to come to Him and have eternal life. As Orthodox Christians we should not turn our backs on God and pretend that knowing about God is good enough. That would be no better than knowing how to eat but never eating. One leads to death. The other leads to life. Don’t you want to live forever?

Friday, May 14, 2010

To Know God is to Have Eternal Life

Shortly before His passion, Jesus said, “This is eternal life, that they may know You, the only true God, and Jesus Christ whom You have sent.” (John 17.3) These words were spoken during what is referred to as the “High Priestly Prayer” which is similar to what the Jewish high priest would pray immediately before offering the sacrifice. In His prayer, Jesus prays for the safety and future unity of the Apostles and the future Church. He also states certain truths in His prayer to the Father for our benefit. He says, “These things I speak in the world, that they may have My joy fulfilled in themselves.” (John 17.13) Throughout the prayer Jesus continues to teach that He and the Father are in total harmony and unity. Jesus says, “For I have given them the words which You have given Me; and they have received them, and have known surely that I came forth from You; and they have believed that You sent Me.” (John 17.8)

In these words Jesus is not speaking simply of learned knowledge that is intellectual but of knowledge that comes from personal experience. When we experience Jesus Christ in a personal way such as receiving Holy Communion, then we can know Him. When we know Jesus Christ, then we have eternal life. Holy Communion and knowing God in Jesus Christ cannot be separated. It can be compared to knowing “of” someone but not actually knowing that person. Only when we meet face to face can we truly say we know anyone and that includes God.

He came 2000 years ago so that the world could know Him and through Him know the Father. Jesus said, “He who has seen me has seen the Father.” (John 14.9) This connection between seeing God and being in Communion with God is highlighted in the hymn we sing at every Divine Liturgy after receiving Holy Communion: “We have seen the true light; we have received the heavenly Spirit; we have found the true faith, worshipping the undivided Trinity, for the Trinity has saved us.”

My brothers and Sisters, have you seen the Light?

Thursday, May 6, 2010

Faith Sometimes Just Isn’t Enough

“He spat on the ground and made clay with the saliva; and He anointed the eyes of the blind man with the clay. And He said to him, ‘Go, wash in the pool of Siloam.’” (John 9.6-7) With these words Jesus healed the man who had been born blind, but it wasn’t until he actually obeyed Christ’s command and

“went and washed,” that he “came back seeing.” (John 9.7)

Our faith in Christ, if it is going to accomplish healing in our life, must be accompanied by action. Whenever we see Christ healing, the willing response and action of the one being healed always is necessary. Pick up your pallet and walk; go wash in the pool; stand up; these are all commandments of God to follow faith with action. God has the power to heal any suffering we have, but He depends upon our response to actually live a new life healed.

It would have been simple for the blind man to remain where he was covered with spit and clay, but his eyes would have remained closed not because he was blind but because he never washed. A little action on his part went a long way for him to see. A little action can go a long way in our life too. If we are suffering and God has healed us, we may not know it until we have enough Faith to get up and do something about it.

Put your faith into action! It may be the only thing left between suffering and healing.