Wednesday, December 29, 2010

Honoring the Gift of Life that is Christmas

The hectic days of Christmas shopping and preparations are behind us and the calm of Christmas break with my family is in full swing. I’m in the backyard with the fire lit and my son playing. This is so much better than driving around town or sitting in my office. Don’t get me wrong…not a day goes by when I don’t thoroughly love being a priest, but a few days with the family is always appreciated.

So what are you doing during these Twelve Days of Christmas? I think I’ve mentioned before that the 12 days begin at Christmas and last until January 5th. This is the Feast of Christmas and we should find ways to honor the birth of our Savior during the days with special projects or at least with prayer and reflection.

Yesterday the Orthodox Church honored the Holy Innocents, those children killed by Herod while he was searching for Jesus to kill Him. Interesting how on the same day, the news stations were talking about new Medicare regulations that encouraged elderly to seek end of life options such as palliative care or hospice as finances would not be available for expensive procedures. So in honor of the Holy Innocents who were routinely killed by Herod and the political elite of Jesus’ day, I ask the following question regarding health care:

In consideration that money will soon run out to provide all the health care needs of our world (this is a fact) who would you be more comfortable in control of your health care decisions?

a. Democrats who routinely kill unborn children while protecting endangered mice?

b. Republicans who routinely kill prisoners while hording billions of dollars in their own banks?

c. Insurance companies who consider it “added risk” to be a woman of childbearing age?

The reality is that none of these options, when put in these terms sounds appealing because we live in a society that has forgotten God and uses the term Christmas to invoke guilt upon lawmakers for the passage of legislation while refusing to acknowledge what the word stands for. There is absolutely no respect for life remaining in our society, so I’m not really surprised.

Christmas is the celebration of the coming of Life into the world. Let’s honor this gift from God and rededicated our daily efforts to keeping Christ in Christmas and honor the life He gave us.

Merry Christmas

Sunday, December 26, 2010

Everyone Has a Mission in Life; What’s Yours?

It was just a few days ago that we were driving around town frantically trying to buy the perfect gift for that someone special. It was just a few days ago that nobody could find a single parking spot in the mall. All last week I saw cars parked on the grass all over the place and traffic anywhere near the mall was absolutely crazy and frantic. Finally we can have some rest right? Wrong! Today the mall will be just as busy, but now instead of BUYING Christmas presents, parking lots are full of people RETURNING Christmas presents. And the craziness continues. If you’re planning to go out today, expect it to be frantic.

Frantic is just the right word to describe the situation in Bethlehem 2000 years ago for Christmas. As soon as everything seemed to calm down: the shepherds had gone, the animals went back to their stalls, and the midwives helped with the baby, Joseph laid down for some much needed rest (just like we all need after the commotion of Christmas). “Arise, take the young Child and His mother, flee to Egypt, and stay there until I bring you word; for Herod will seek the young Child to destroy Him.” (Matthew 2.13) These were the words of an angel that greeted Joseph’s sleep. Rather than resting for their journey back home to Nazareth, since the census was now over, Joseph has to pack everything up and leave for Egypt. And so they went, and a life of being constantly on the go went with them.

That much I bet we can all empathize with Joseph. Our lives are always on the go. I know whenever I get a chance to sit with someone, one of us has to cut the visit short because errands, or work, or just “life” is waiting. As the old saying (at least since 1225 AD) goes, “Time waits for no man.” We can all agree on that! But does it have to be that way?

Let’s take a moment and look again at this morning’s Gospel story. We see Joseph asleep after the commotion of the Birth of Christ – a pretty amazing day I’m sure. Then all those who had visited finally leave and Joseph tries to get some rest, but he is interrupted by the angel’s warning. “When he arose, he took the young Child and His mother by night and departed for Egypt.” (Matthew 2.14) We later catch up to Joseph on his way back to Israel after the death of Herod when he is warned yet again, this time by God, to go to Galilee instead. “And he came and dwelt in a city called Nazareth,.” (Matthew 2.23)

Joseph heard two warnings and WE heard two prophecies. The first about Egypt, “That it might be fulfilled which was spoken by the Lord through the prophet, saying, ‘Out of Egypt I called my Son.’” (Matthew 2.15) The second about Nazareth, “that it might be fulfilled which was spoken by the prophets, ‘He shall be called a Nazarene.’” (Matthew 2.23) Of course these are prophesies about the Messiah, but I don’t want us to dwell too much on them this morning.

This morning, I simply want us to pay attention to WHY Joseph was on the move. Joseph and Jesus were on a mission, plain and simple, just like us. Many times there is one single thing that drives us throughout our life. For some it’s educating children, for others it might be feeding the poor, and still for others it might be as basic as keeping a roof over our family’s heads. Whatever drives us, our mission is what keeps us going, and we won’t stop at anything until that mission is accomplished. For Joseph it was protecting Jesus and for Jesus, it was protecting us and saving us from death. The reason we hear the prophesies at all, is to help us understand that their mission was planned by God from the very beginning.

So what is our mission or better yet, what should be our mission as Christians? This is not so strange a question as you might think. When God created us, He created us with free will, and it is up to us to determine our mission or goal in life. God will not force us into any answer, and neither should we, by the way, force anyone else to choose a particular mission in life. Let me make it easy for you. Do you want to live forever? Do you really want to live forever with God in Heaven? If you do, then listen to what God has to say for your life. The Lord says, “If anyone desires to come after Me, let him deny himself, and take up his cross, and follow Me.” (Matthew 16.24) Jesus never says, “Hey you! Pick up your cross and come here.” It’s our choice to follow God, but if we really do, then let’s do it.

But following God comes at a price, just like it did for Joseph in this morning’s Gospel. There will come a time, just when we think we are going to get a chance to rest, that God is going to call us and expect us to get up and get moving. The question is, will we go? Will time wait for us?

Time marches on but we don’t’ have to. The fact is WE are in control of much more of our life than we give ourselves credit for. We have been led to believe that longer workdays and shorter weekends make a more productive society. We have been led to believe that more is always better. We were lied to! What creates a better life is time with God away from the commotion of the world. The world is filled with people, hard working people, that never went to college, never played sports, and never spent a single day at Disney World, and still their lives have been blessed beyond their expectations. They have food enough to eat, a roof over their heads, and clothes on their backs. The only difference between them and so many other people in our society is that they never forgot to find time for God.

Time might march on, but it will march on without us if we don’t give some of it to God. And I’m not just talking about coming to Church on Sunday. I thank God every week when I see our pews with people in them. Joseph probably thought he had done enough when the angel told him to move to Egypt, and we might think being in Church one Sunday here and there is enough. After all we have bills to pay and places to go. And Sunday IS the only day we have to sleep in. WRONG. We can sleep any other day we choose, we just don’t. We might even be in Church EVERY Sunday and think we’ve done enough, but when God calls, will we answer?

God is calling my brothers and sisters. He is calling us to a better life, one better than any CEO or government official could ever offer us. He is calling us to a life WITH Him in Heaven and He’s waiting for our answer. Will we find the time for Him now that the commotion of Christmas is over or will we just find another project to occupy our life? The choice is ours to make.

If you want this better life, then here’s what you have to do. Beginning right now, you have to listen to where God wants you to go, and since He most likely won’t be texting you or sending you a message on Facebook, the only way to hear Him is to pray and come to Church, AT LEAST every Sunday. Living the better life in Heaven begins right here in Church. If you really want to live a better life, staring now, make a commitment to be in Church every Sunday where you can hear the Gospel and receive Holy Communion and then find ways that you can serve God and assist in His mission just like Joseph.

Joseph had to get up in the middle of the night and flea to Egypt. I doubt many of us are being called to Egypt, but the Mission Center is always looking for people interested in foreign missions. It doesn’t have to be missions; it can as simple as coming to bible study every week and making a commitment to understanding God’s Word. It can be as simple as picking up the phone and calling people who haven’t been in Church for a while. Who knows….maybe they need to hear a kind voice. Whatever it is, God is calling each of us to some sort of mission in life, and He’s just waiting for us to respond.

I can tell you what it isn’t though….it isn’t more shopping and more commotion that does nothing more than keep us away from Church….that much I know.

Saturday, December 25, 2010

Glory to God in the highest, and on earth, peace, goodwill toward men! (Luke 2.14)

The other day I was having lunch with a member of our community and I was approached by a woman with a big grin on her face. “I just have to tell you how much I enjoyed the Greek Festival,” she said. Oh boy, here we go again I thought to myself. “Yeah I know; the food is really good, blah blah blah.” But then she finished her sentence. “I wanted to thank you for allowing us to go in the Church. It was just beautiful. I thought afterward how much more work we Protestants have to do building our Churches. When I was in your Church, I really felt like God was there. Thank you!” WOW! Thank God our minds don’t always say what we’re thinking! For the first time ever the conversation was about God and the Church and NOT about food. Praise God! It really put me in the mood for Christmas.

What a great gift this woman gave me, and I know she has no idea how much it meant to hear her words. But you know; she’s right. You really can feel God in the Church and not just during Divine Liturgy. And it’s all because of tonight. It’s all because the Word of God became flesh. It’s all because of Christmas.

Now compare that to something else I heard the other day. Again I was with a member of our Community (this time a different member) and a question came up about Christmas. “Were Mary and Joseph homeless?” Believe it or not this is a very popular question, because as we just heard, Mary “brought forth her firstborn Son, and wrapped Him in swaddling cloths, and laid Him in a manger, because there was no room for them in the inn.” (Luke 2.7) I’m not really surprised by this question because politicians have been pulling at our emotional heart strings for many years comparing Jesus’ birth in a stable (although we Orthodox know it was a cave) and the plight of the poor of our society today. It is unfortunate that people take advantage of high emotion around these seasons of joy and celebration to guilt people into giving money to the poor. This simply is NOT the Tradition of the Orthodox Church. Charity is an act of love not guilt.

To stay in the spirit of Christmas from our Holy Orthodox Tradition, then, I will NOT pander to those politicians and media mongers who so desperately seek to find fault and hypocrisy with Christians in general and Christmas more specifically. Instead I’m going to talk about what this woman felt in our Church…the presence of God.

Ever since God created the Universe He has revealed His presence to His creation. In the Garden of Eden He walked with Adam and Eve. After the fall, humanity no longer had the privilege of walking physically with God, but He never forgot us. Whether He spoke from a burning bush or manifested Himself as a pillar of cloud and fire in the desert (Exodus 13.22), God has never stopped revealing Himself to us. But, since the Garden we were never able to physically know His presence, until tonight…well 2000 years tonight to be exact.

This is the beauty of Christmas. The same God, Who created the Universe from nothing, who knows how many thousands of years ago, desired for us to be restored to the image we had lost. “And the Word became flesh and dwelt among us, and we beheld His glory, the glory as of the only begotten of the Father, full of grace and truth.” (John 1.14) This is what this woman felt when she entered our Church. The glory of God, real and true, is present right now on the Holy Altar. She could only have felt His presence because He was born, which is why we are all hear right now in this Church.

There were no politics on that first Christmas night 2000 years ago. There was just joy; joy because the Savior had been born, not just any savior, but Christ the Savior. That’s why the angels burst out in song when they were telling the shepherds the news. “Glory to God in the highest, and on earth peace, goodwill toward men!” (Luke 2.14) God has come to save us from this awful world full of pain and suffering and sin. God has come so that we might live a new life with Him in Heaven right now. We don’t have to wait until we die to enjoy the gift of Christmas. It’s not wrapped in a box that says, “DO NOT OPEN UNTIL JUDGMENT DAY!” We have been GIVEN eternal life. “Whoever believes in Him should not perish but HAVE eternal life” (John 3.16)

Christmas isn’t about decorations and candy and turkey and eggnog. It IS about gifts, well one gift anyway, the gift of life. The gift of Christmas is nonrefundable, nontransferable and nonnegotiable and it has YOUR name on it, just for YOU. Merry Christmas and by the way….Mary and Joseph were NOT homeless on Christmas. They were traveling to Bethlehem for the Roman census.

Friday, December 24, 2010

The End Has Arrived but We’re Just Beginning

New Testament Challenge, Day 40 – Revelation 12-22

In keeping with the Tradition of not preaching about this book I will simply say that the 40 Days of Blogging Challenge combined with the New Testament Challenge has come to an end with the book about THE END. I suppose it is appropriate that when Jesus finally does come back to usher in the new creation, all this life will be left behind for something better. With the Feast of Christmas, already being celebrated throughout the world as I write this, we usher in the New Testament, the New Covenant with God.

I began this challenge by sharing why I blog, but I end with something completely different…

Why do YOU read? Orthodox Christianity is not an intellectual faith. It is not a mental exercise. And it is most definitely NOT a system of beliefs and rules to be learned and filed away on some library shelf. Orthodox Christianity is a way of life. So if you come to this blog everyday and have not somehow been challenged, internally, to live a better life in Christ, then I have failed in my purpose for this blog. Of course, I won’t stop doing it, but you might stop reading it. That’s your decision and as I always like to remind people, the choice is yours to make.

NOW….if you want a real life in Christ, turn off your computer and go to Church! You’ll be better off there, trust me.

Merry Christmas and,

Be Transfigured! Life a New Life in Christ

Thursday, December 23, 2010

I have this against you (Revelation)

New Testament Challenge, Day 39 – Revelation 1-11

Since I never preach about the contents of this book, as is the ancient traditions, I prefer to touch on a theme that, unlike so much of the imagery found in Revelation, cannot be doubted. In today’s readings we hear of letters that God sent to seven Church each bearing a warning. Each Church had found favor with God but was at risk of losing His favor.

To the Church of Ephesus:

"I know your works, your labor, your patience, and that you cannot bear those who are evil. And you have tested those who say they are apostles and are not, and have found them liars; and you have persevered and have patience, and have labored for My name's sake and have not become weary. Nevertheless I have this against you, that you have left your first love. Remember therefore from where you have fallen; repent and do the first works, or else I will come to you quickly and remove your lampstand from its place -- unless you repent.” (Revelation 2.1-5)

To the Church of Smyrna:

"I know your works, tribulation, and poverty (but you are rich); and I know the blasphemy of those who say they are Jews and are not, but are a synagogue of Satan. Do not fear any of those things which you are about to suffer. Indeed, the devil is about to throw some of you into prison, that you may be tested, and you will have tribulation ten days. Be faithful until death, and I will give you the crown of life.” (Revelation 2.8-10)

To the Church of Pergamos:

"I know your works, and where you dwell, where Satan's throne is. And you hold fast to My name, and did not deny My faith even in the days in which Antipas was My faithful martyr, who was killed among you, where Satan dwells. But I have a few things against you, because you have there those who hold the doctrine of Balaam, who taught Balak to put a stumbling block before the children of Israel, to eat things sacrificed to idols, and to commit sexual immorality. Thus you also have those who hold the doctrine of the Nicolaitans, which thing I hate. 'Repent, or else I will come to you quickly and will fight against them with the sword of My mouth.” (Revelation 2.12-16)

To the Church of Thyatira:

"I know your works, love, service, faith, and your patience; and as for your works, the last are more than the first. Nevertheless I have a few things against you, because you allow that woman Jezebel, who calls herself a prophetess, to teach and seduce My servants to commit sexual immorality and eat things sacrificed to idols. And I gave her time to repent of her sexual immorality, and she did not repent. Indeed I will cast her into a sickbed, and those who commit adultery with her into great tribulation, unless they repent of their deeds.” (Revelation 2.19-22)

To the Church of Sardis:

“"I know your works, that you have a name that you are alive, but you are dead. Be watchful, and strengthen the things which remain, that are ready to die, for I have not found your works perfect before God. Remember therefore how you have received and heard; hold fast and repent. Therefore if you will not watch, I will come upon you as a thief, and you will not know what hour I will come upon you.” (Revelation 3.1-3)

To the Church of Philadelphia:

"I know your works. See, I have set before you an open door, and no one can shut it; for you have a little strength, have kept My word, and have not denied My name. Indeed I will make those of the synagogue of Satan, who say they are Jews and are not, but lie -- indeed I will make them come and worship before your feet, and to know that I have loved you. Because you have kept My command to persevere, I also will keep you from the hour of trial which shall come upon the whole world, to test those who dwell on the earth.” (Revelation 3.8-10)

To the Church of Laodicea:

"I know your works, that you are neither cold nor hot. I could wish you were cold or hot. So then, because you are lukewarm, and neither cold nor hot, I will vomit you out of My mouth. Because you say, 'I am rich, have become wealthy, and have need of nothing' -- and do not know that you are wretched, miserable, poor, blind, and naked -- I counsel you to buy from Me gold refined in the fire, that you may be rich; and white garments, that you may be clothed, that the shame of your nakedness may not be revealed; and anoint your eyes with eye salve, that you may see. As many as I love, I rebuke and chasten. Therefore be zealous and repent.” (Revelation 3.15-19)

It is clear from these few verses that God has warned us to take our Faith seriously and not to allow temptation to drive us away from Him and His Church. Unlike those who believe in the myth, “once saved, always saved,” God is warning us…

If you’re not living your faith, you had better start. If you are….then never stop!

Wednesday, December 22, 2010

I Can Hardly Wait for Christmas!

In just a few days we will celebrate Christmas and I can hardly wait, but I bet it’s not for the same reason as many others. For many people, the arrival of Christmas represents the end of weeks of celebrating and months of anxiety over the holiday season. I distinctly remember seeing Christmas items in stores in August and September. For those caught up in the hustle and bustle of Christmas shopping, the arrival of Christmas brings a sense of relief that the commotion is finally over. But that’s not why I’m so excited.
For many people the arrival of Christmas brings to completion a month’s worth of decorating front yards, company parties and nights out “getting into the Christmas spirit” with long-time friends. Come Christmas morning, the decorations can finally come down and life “returns to normal” whatever normal is. But that’s not why I’m so excited.

I’m so excited for Christmas not because I get to decorate trees and give gifts but because of the gift that we have all received – the gift of life. Christmas is the celebration of, what the early Saint John Chrysostom called, the “Capital of Feasts,” because all the other celebrations of Christianity: Epiphany (Baptism of Christ) Annunciation (Announcement of Christ’s birth by Archangel Gabriel), Transfiguration on Mount Tabor, and even His Passion, Death, Glorious Resurrection and Ascension into Heaven, could not have taken place if He had first not been born. That’s why I’m so excited!

It has become cliché to remind people this time of year that we have forgotten the “reason for the season” or “left Christ out of Christmas” but that is exactly what has happened. Retailers have come to depend so much on Christmas shopping that stores stay open later and later every year, or open earlier and earlier, just to give someone that extra few minutes to spend money they probably can’t afford to spend. And THEN those same stores that depend upon Christmas shopping to secure their annual profits insist on “Happy Holidays” rather than “Merry Christmas.” INDEED!

This year rather than looking at Christmas as just another day or, worse, as a financial burden, find an Orthodox Church and spend some time with your family remembering the things that really matter. Don’t let all the hullabaloo of Christmas trees, Christmas carols, Christmas decorations, Christmas parties, and Christmas shopping, get the better of you. And don’t let people try to convince you it doesn’t matter, because it does.

This year celebrate the Birth of Jesus Christ and the taking on of humanity by the Divine Word of God, “so that whoever believes in Him shall not perish but have life everlasting.”

Tuesday, December 21, 2010

“Make your call and election sure.” (2 Peter 1.10)

New Testament Challenge, Day 37 – 1&2 Peter

For most of the past week I have been writing about the risk of not maintaining what I would refer to as an “active faith” in Christ. Today’s readings ring clear again of the danger in allowing there to be a disconnect between our faith in Christ and our daily living. Saint Peter says,

“But also for this very reason, giving all diligence, add to your faith virtue, to virtue knowledge, to knowledge self-control, to self-control perseverance, to perseverance godliness, to godliness brotherly kindness, and to brotherly kindness love. For it these things are yours and abound, you will be neither barren nor unfruitful in the knowledge of our Lord Jesus Christ. For he who lacks these things is shortsighted, even to blindness, and has forgotten that he was cleansed from his old sins.” (2 Peter 1.5-9)

Saint Peter warns us,
“But there were also false prophets among the people, even as there will be false prophets among you, who will secretly bring in destructive heresies, even denying the Lord who brought them, and bring on themselves swift destruction. And many will follow their destructive ways, because of whom the way of truth will be blasphemed.” (2 Peter 2.1-2)

Can it not be said, especially in the so-called Bible belt, that the Orthodox Church is blasphemed and spoken of as non-Christian by many pastors? What else can account for the fact that the ancient and Holy Traditions of the Apostles, who were guided “into all truth” (John 16.13) by the Holy Spirit, than the warning of Saint Peter? Like it or not, there ARE false teachers in Christianity today and we shouldn’t be surprised. Scripture tells to expect as much.

“Therefore, beloved, looking forward to these things, be diligent to be found by Him in peace, without spot and blameless; and consider that the longsuffering of our Lord is salvation – as also our beloved brother Paul, according to the wisdom given to him, has written to you, as also in all his epistles, speaking in them of these things, in which are some things hard to understand, which untaught and unstable people twist to their own destruction, as they do also the rest of the Scriptures. You therefore, beloved, since you know this beforehand, beware lest you also fall from your own steadfastness, being led away with the error of the wicket; but grow in the grace and knowledge of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ.”

It’s almost Christmas and many of you may be reading this blog because you are searching for answers during the holiday season. I urge you this week, take control of your life and give it over to the Lord. It’s never too late (until your dead) to begin a new life in Jesus Christ. Why not make that new day today? Find a local Orthodox Christian Church and enter into the Kingdom of God for Christmas. It will be much better than any fancy-wrapped gift under a tree.

Monday, December 20, 2010

Faith Enough to Save

New Testament Challenge, Day 36 – Hebrews 11-13 & James

To major themes reveal themselves in today’s readings: the power of faith and the benefit of works. Saint Paul begins today’s section in Hebrews, Chapter 11, by reminding us of the power of faith. He says, “Now faith is the substance of things hoped for, the evidence of things not seen. For by it the elders obtained a good testimony.” (Hebrews 11.1-2) The chapter is worth reading:

1 Now faith is the substance of things hoped for, the evidence of things not seen. 2 For by it the elders obtained a good testimony.3 By faith we understand that the worlds were framed by the word of God, so that the things which are seen were not made of things which are visible. 4 By faith Abel offered to God a more excellent sacrifice than Cain, through which he obtained witness that he was righteous, God testifying of his gifts; and through it he being dead still speaks. 5 By faith Enoch was taken away so that he did not see death, “and was not found, because God had taken him”;[a] for before he was taken he had this testimony, that he pleased God. 6 But without faith it is impossible to please Him, for he who comes to God must believe that He is, and that He is a rewarder of those who diligently seek Him. 7 By faith Noah, being divinely warned of things not yet seen, moved with godly fear, prepared an ark for the saving of his household, by which he condemned the world and became heir of the righteousness which is according to faith. 8 By faith Abraham obeyed when he was called to go out to the place which he would receive as an inheritance. And he went out, not knowing where he was going. 9 By faith he dwelt in the land of promise as in a foreign country, dwelling in tents with Isaac and Jacob, the heirs with him of the same promise; 10 for he waited for the city which has foundations, whose builder and maker is God. 11 By faith Sarah herself also received strength to conceive seed, and she bore a child[b] when she was past the age, because she judged Him faithful who had promised. 12 Therefore from one man, and him as good as dead, were born as many as the stars of the sky in multitude—innumerable as the sand which is by the seashore. 13 These all died in faith, not having received the promises, but having seen them afar off were assured of them,[c] embraced them and confessed that they were strangers and pilgrims on the earth. 14 For those who say such things declare plainly that they seek a homeland. 15 And truly if they had called to mind that country from which they had come out, they would have had opportunity to return. 16 But now they desire a better, that is, a heavenly country. Therefore God is not ashamed to be called their God, for He has prepared a city for them. 17 By faith Abraham, when he was tested, offered up Isaac, and he who had received the promises offered up his only begotten son, 18 of whom it was said, “In Isaac your seed shall be called,”[d] 19 concluding that God was able to raise him up, even from the dead, from which he also received him in a figurative sense. 20 By faith Isaac blessed Jacob and Esau concerning things to come. 21 By faith Jacob, when he was dying, blessed each of the sons of Joseph, and worshiped, leaning on the top of his staff. 22 By faith Joseph, when he was dying, made mention of the departure of the children of Israel, and gave instructions concerning his bones. 23 By faith Moses, when he was born, was hidden three months by his parents, because they saw he was a beautiful child; and they were not afraid of the king’s command. 24 By faith Moses, when he became of age, refused to be called the son of Pharaoh’s daughter, 25 choosing rather to suffer affliction with the people of God than to enjoy the passing pleasures of sin, 26 esteeming the reproach of Christ greater riches than the treasures in[e] Egypt; for he looked to the reward. 27 By faith he forsook Egypt, not fearing the wrath of the king; for he endured as seeing Him who is invisible. 28 By faith he kept the Passover and the sprinkling of blood, lest he who destroyed the firstborn should touch them. 29 By faith they passed through the Red Sea as by dry land, whereas the Egyptians, attempting to do so, were drowned. 30 By faith the walls of Jericho fell down after they were encircled for seven days. 31 By faith the harlot Rahab did not perish with those who did not believe, when she had received the spies with peace. 32 And what more shall I say? For the time would fail me to tell of Gideon and Barak and Samson and Jephthah, also of David and Samuel and the prophets: 33 who through faith subdued kingdoms, worked righteousness, obtained promises, stopped the mouths of lions, 34 quenched the violence of fire, escaped the edge of the sword, out of weakness were made strong, became valiant in battle, turned to flight the armies of the aliens. 35 Women received their dead raised to life again. Others were tortured, not accepting deliverance, that they might obtain a better resurrection. 36 Still others had trial of mockings and scourgings, yes, and of chains and imprisonment. 37 They were stoned, they were sawn in two, were tempted,[f] were slain with the sword. They wandered about in sheepskins and goatskins, being destitute, afflicted, tormented— 38 of whom the world was not worthy. They wandered in deserts and mountains, in dens and caves of the earth. 39 And all these, having obtained a good testimony through faith, did not receive the promise, 40 God having provided something better for us, that they should not be made perfect apart from us. (Hebrews 11.1-40)

It is quite clear that Saint Paul believed the power of faith was revealed in the willingness to DO the right thing in life. Now let’s take that and compare it with Saint James, also known as Iakovos in the Orthodox Church.

14 What does it profit, my brethren, if someone says he has faith but does not have works? Can faith save him? 15 If a brother or sister is naked and destitute of daily food, 16 and one of you says to them, “Depart in peace, be warmed and filled,” but you do not give them the things which are needed for the body, what does it profit? 17 Thus also faith by itself, if it does not have works, is dead. 18 But someone will say, “You have faith, and I have works.” Show me your faith without your[d] works, and I will show you my faith by my[e] works. 19 You believe that there is one God. You do well. Even the demons believe—and tremble! 20 But do you want to know, O foolish man, that faith without works is dead?[f] 21 Was not Abraham our father justified by works when he offered Isaac his son on the altar? 22 Do you see that faith was working together with his works, and by works faith was made perfect? 23 And the Scripture was fulfilled which says, “Abraham believed God, and it was accounted to him for righteousness.”[g]And he was called the friend of God. 24 You see then that a man is justified by works, and not by faith only. 25 Likewise, was not Rahab the harlot also justified by works when she received the messengers and sent them out another way? 26 For as the body without the spirit is dead, so faith without works is dead also. (James 2.14-26)

Taken in combination the two selections couldn’t be any clearer. We simply cannot have faith in God and NOT desire and strive toward works of charity and love.

We might, if we were bold enough write our own version of today’s selection:

“By faith, the waitress rejected a Sunday shift so she could attend Church. By faith, the retail owner remained closed on Sunday so his employees could worship God in Church. By faith, the Church opened its doors to strangers and welcomed the poor for a warm meal and bed at night.By faith you volunteered time to feed the hungry once a week. By faith you spent time visiting prisoners. By faith you brought your tithe to the Church knowing that God would find a way for you to eat." Yes, by faith we are saved IF our faith leads to these types of actions.

Do you have faith enough to save?

Sunday, December 19, 2010

“Therefore we must give the more earnest heed to the things we have heard, lest we drift away.” (Hebrews 2.1)

New Testament Challenge, Day 35 – Hebrews 1-10

There are two things that strike me today. First, I am “amused” how we begin our readings in Hebrews for the New Testament Challenge today just as we heard in Matthew’s Gospel during the Divine Liturgy today the entire genealogy of Jesus Christ. This is amusing to me because we just saw heard Saint Paul warn about spending so much time on genealogies and then we hear a long list of names in the Church. Why? Really for the same purpose that now we hear what Saint Paul offers to the Hebrew Christians. The book was, by the way, written to Jewish believers and “complete the picture” in the minds on the purpose and reality of Jesus Christ and the New Covenant. For that matter non-Jews had no need for a “New” Testament since they were not part of the Old or “First” Testament. Nonetheless Saint Paul gives us a clearer picture on the Sacrifice of Jesus Christ and its purpose.

“Inasmuch then as the children have partaken of flesh and blood, He Himself likewise shared in the same, that through death He might destroy him who had the power of death, that is, the devil, and release those who through fear of death were all their lifetime subject to bondage. For indeed He does not give aid to angels, but He does give aide to the seed of Abraham.” (Hebrews 2.14-16)
In partaking of the flesh and blood, which is to receive Holy Communion, we are released from the fear of death. This is the great gift and role of Christ’s Passion on the Cross.

The second reason I am amused today is the clear implication that both Matthew’s Gospel and today’s readings in Hebrews suggest that it isn’t directly the flesh lineage that saves but the faith lineage. In the Gospel there are many other names of individuals who were fleshly descendents of Abraham, not excluding the billions of Muslims who are descendents of Ishmael. Saint Paul writes,
“Beware, brethren, lest there be in any of you and evil heart of unbelief in departing from the living God; but exhort one another daily, while it is called ‘Today,’ lest any of you be hardened through the deceitfulness of sin.” (Hebrews 3.12-13)
 Saint Paul could just have easily given this warning to any Christian believer, most especially so-called ‘cradle Orthodox’, who turn away from God in their lives.

While we may be members of the ancient Orthodox Christian Church, we must never think our ‘seat at the table’ is guaranteed as it wasn’t for the Jews. We must take our faith in Jesus Christ and allow it govern our lives and actions DAILY.

Saturday, December 18, 2010

“Those who have believed in God should be careful to maintain good works.” (Titus 3.8)

New Testament Challenge, Day 34 – Titus and Philemon

Christmas is only one week away and our conscience might be heavy to do something nice for someone in need. This is because the love of God is in our hearts. The debate between good works and faith is alive in well in Christianity. Some say we are saved by faith alone while others say that good works are necessary for salvation. The reality is that both are required because you can’t have one without the other.

For Saint Paul salvation wasn’t something that was guaranteed. He always wanted us to remember how the disobedient Jews were removed from the Church because they didn’t bear fruit.
“Because of unbelief they were broken off, and you stand by faith. Do not be haughty, but fear. For if God did not spare the natural branches, He may not spare you either.” (Romans 11.20-21)
 This is why he warns us in today’s readings to maintain our good works.

There are several references to works as they relate to our faith:

“They profess to know God, but in works they deny Him, being abominable, disobedient, and disqualified for every good work.” (Titus 1.16)

“In all things showing yourself to be a patter of good works.” (Titus 2.7)

“Remind them to be subject to rulers and authorities, to obey, to be ready for every good work, to speak evil of no one, to be peaceable, gentle, showing all humility to all men.” (Titus 3.1-2)

“Those who have believed in God should be careful to maintain good works.” (Titus 3.8)

“And let our people also learn to maintain good works, to meet urgent needs, that they may not be unfruitful.” (Titus 3.14)

It’s almost Christmas and soon we will welcome the Incarnate Word of God into the world. Do you want Him to find you lazy and unfruitful in your faith or do you want Him to find you a “good and faithful servant?” (Matthew 25.21) The choice is yours.

Friday, December 17, 2010

Endless Genealogies

New Testament Challenge, Day 33 – 1-2 Timothy

The desire to seek out one’s past is common in all people. Take one step into any Church and as you meet new people, a litany begins, “And he is the brother of so-and-so, and the cousin of so-and-so.” etc. Now this is normally done, in the case of new clergy to seemingly protect the new clergy from saying something about another person that might not be flattering in front of their relatives. This happened to me when I first arrived in Florence in 2008. I could never understand the premise. Why in the world would clergy speak poorly of ANYONE in their community especially in front of ANYONE in the parish? That’s when it hit me. They weren’t trying to protect me; they were trying to influence me.

Too often society and that includes churches, fall victim to the idea of genealogies as the root of authority. “My daddy built that church!” “My granddaddy was the first preacher in that church!” While we should have joy that our ancestors were founding members of a church, since the founders of churches receive an extra blessing from God, the status of “Founding Family” should never be used as means of influence over community decisions.

This is essence of Saint Paul’s guidance to Saint Timothy.
“As I urged you when I went into Macedonia – remain in Ephesus that you may charge some that they teach no other doctrine, nor give heed to fables and endless genealogies, which cause disputes rather than godly edification which is in faith.” (1 Timothy 1.3-4)
 Saint Paul makes a clear association between genealogies and false doctrine as he says,
“Now the purpose of the commandment is love from a pure heart, from a good conscience, and from sincere faith, from which some, having strayed, have turned aside to idle talk, desiring to be teachers of the law, understanding neither what they say nor the things which they affirm.” (1 Timothy 1.5-6)

In our contemporary society we encounter many such people, claiming to have faith in Jesus Christ and claiming to teach the truth about Him. But when confronted with historical corrections to their theology based upon Holy Tradition, they respond as if Holy Tradition were man-made. They forget the commandment of Saint Paul:
“Therefore, brethren, stand fast and hold the traditions which you were taught, whether by word or our epistle.” (2 Thessalonians 2.15)

Finally Saint Paul says,
“Now the Spirit expressly says that in latter times some will depart from the faith, giving heed to deceiving spirits and doctrines of demons, speaking lies in hypocrisy, having their own conscience seared with a hot iron.” (1 Timothy 4.1-2)
 This is happening everywhere you look in our society. Hasn’t the time come for a return to the Truth Faith as established by the Holy Apostles and handed down as Holy Tradition? Hasn’t the time for Orthodox Christianity to be the faith for America! Come and see! Come and witness ancient Christianity in a contemporary world. Come and see the original Christian Church!

Thursday, December 16, 2010

“Do not grow weary in doing good.” (2 Thessalonians 3.13)

New Testament Challenge, Day 32 – 1-2 Thessalonians

Sometimes the charges from Saint Paul seem unattainable.
“For this is the will of God, your sanctification: that you should abstain from sexual immorality; that each of you should know how to possess his own vessel in sanctification and honor, not in passion of lust, like the Gentiles who do not know God; that no one should take advantage of and defraud his brother in this matter, because the Lord is the avenger of all such, as we also forewarned you and testified. For God did not call us to uncleanness, but in holiness. Therefore he who rejects this does not reject man, but God, who has also given us His Holy Spirit.” (1 Thessalonians 4.3-8)

Sanctification!? Purity!? Is Saint Paul serious? Clearly he did NOT live in the 21st Century!

Indeed he is serious and whether the 1st or the 21st Century, we have been called to a life of holiness and God has blessed us with the ability to endure the suffering that will come when we commit to this life. Saint Paul says, “But we are bound to give thanks to God always for you, brethren beloved by the Lord, because God from the beginning chose you for salvation through sanctification by the Spirit and belief in the truth, to which He called you by our gospel, for the obtaining of the glory of our Lord Jesus Christ.” (2 Thessalonians 2.13-14)

We must not forget that the Comforter has been given to us and that God will never allow any temptation more than we can endure so long as we remain in Communion with Him. (1 Corinthians 10.13)

This is all cause for great joy and hope that we will be saved by God. In the meantime Saint Paul commands us to, “aspire to lead a quiet life, to mind your own business, and to work with your own hands.”

Wednesday, December 15, 2010

Be of One Mind

New Testament Challenge, Day 31 – Philippians and Colossians

It’s interesting. When you get a chance to read Scripture every day as we are for the Challenge, certain themes begin to present themselves a bit more obvious than if we just read a few passages at a time. This happened to me today. I came to realization that there are parts of today’s readings and yesterday’s readings that could just as easily have been “a cut and paste job” by Saint Paul.

“Therefore if there is any consolation in Christ, if any comfort of love, if any fellowship of the Spirit, if any affection and mercy, fulfill my joy by being like-minded, having the same love, being of one accord, of one mind.” (Philippians 2.1-1)

The call for unity in the Church is so great that Christ Himself prays for it before His Passion on the Cross, “That they all may be one, as You, Father, are in Me, and I in You; that they also may be one in Us.” (John 17.21)

Salvation is being united to God “in His blood” (Colossians 1.14) which is only possible through the Eucharist. Jesus Christ says, “He who eats My flesh and drinks My blood abides in Me, and I in him.” (John 6.56) Don’t YOU want to be united to God?

Come to Church and find out how!

Tuesday, December 14, 2010

“I marvel that you are turning away so soon” Galatians 1.6

New Testament Challenge, Day 30 – Galatians and Ephesians

Soon? We could ask the same question to many of today’s Christians who do not remain faithful to the Gospel as taught by Saint Paul and the remainder of the Holy Apostles, to whom the Holy Spirit came to “guide into all truth.” (John 16.13) A quick glance at the local white pages (that’s a big book that the phone company publishes but very few people actually use them any more) reveals hundreds if not thousands of Christian Churches all claiming to teach the truth about Jesus Christ. But the truth could not possibly be that different.

It isn’t, and today’s readings should be a reminder to us to return to the Faith of the Apostles. “But even if we, or an angel from heaven, preach any other gospel to you than what we have preached to you, let him be accursed. As we have said before, so now I say again, if anyone preaches any other gospel to you than what you have received, let him be accursed.” (Galatians 1.8-9)

Today’s pews are filled with those who teach another gospel. Teachings on Atonement and the Rapture are two of the main theological myths taught by thousands of Christian preachers every Sunday. The problem is these teachings have absolutely no basis in ancient Christian dogma as taught by the Holy Apostles. Here are few good articles to read further about these topics:

Both are great resources you can use to compare the teachings you may be hearing from the pulpit in your church with the teachings of the ancient Church. This is important because even Saint Paul had to submit himself to the Apostles. Shouldn’t the preachers of today have the same requirement?

Monday, December 13, 2010

“That there may be equality” (2 Corinthians 8.14)

New Testament Challenge, Day 29 – 2 Corinthians

It has become common to discuss charitable giving during the holidays, so I thought I would take advantage of that and merge my thoughts on today’s New Testament Challenge readings and charity. On the topic of giving, Saint Paul says, “For I do not mean that should be eased and you burdened; but by an equality, that now at this time your abundance may supply their lack, that their abundance also may supply your lack – that there may be equality.” (2 Corinthians 8.13-14) I find it quite interesting that the state of equality isn’t in the position of gifts but in the use of them.

The message from Saint Paul that I believe would be of amazing benefit for our society is that at some point each of us will have need and each of us will have abundance. To be equal isn’t to eliminate one’s abundance in favor of the one who has need. This is simple redistribution of wealth for wealth purposes. The actual use of abundance, whether it is money, knowledge, talents, or any other resource, is meant to serve God and others in love. Simply ensuring each member of our society has equal wealth is accomplishing nothing other than jealousy since it is quite impossible to accurately distribute wealth. Love on the other hand is given freely by God to anyone and everyone, even if they don’t desire it. We all have been equally blessed with love by God. How we choose to use that love reflects whether we in fact welcome God’s love for us.

Citing the story of Manna in Exodus, Saint Paul writes, “As it is written, ‘He who gathered much had nothing left over, and he who gathered little had no lack.’” (2 Corinthians 8.15) Here is the complete reference from Exodus:

So it was that quail came up at evening and covered the camp, and in the morning the dew lay all around the camp. But when the layer of dew lifted, there, on the surface of the desert, was a small round substance, white like coriander seed, like frost on the ground. So when the children of Israel saw it, they said to one another, "What is this?" For they did not know what it was. Thus Moses said to the, "This is the bread the Lord gives you to eat. This is what the Lord has ordered, ‘Let every man gather it for his family, one omer according to the head count and number of souls among you. Each one should gather it with those who share your tents.’" Then the children of Israel did so and gathered, some more, some less. So when they measured it by omers, he who gathered much had nothing left over, and he who gathered little had no lack. Each one gathered according to the need of those sharing the tent with him. (Exodus 16.13-18)

Saint Paul is trying to remind us that we all share in this “tent” we call Earth and what God has sent for our blessing is not just for us but for all those who have need. Why not take that message with you during the Christmas season as you plan your shopping and your charitable gifts?

Please remember your local Church during this season, just as Moses and Saint Paul taught, that we may all be equal this Christmas.

Sunday, December 12, 2010

Excuses Excuses Excuses…

We hear in the Gospel of Luke about a great banquet (Luke 14.16-24) where all the guests who had been invited invented excused why they could not attend. “But they with one accord began to make excuses.” (Luke 14.18) I say excuses because it was clear from the Gospel they knew of the invitation ahead of time but didn’t care enough of the host to keep their schedule clear.
The same thing happens in the Church. Every Sunday the Church sets a great banquet called the Divine Liturgy, and every Sunday we make excuses why we cannot attend. Of course these excuses are not as cleaver as those found in the Gospel. “I can’t come to Church today because it’s the only day I have to sleep in.” That has to be my favorite. But we must beware the lesson of the Gospel.

“The the master said to the servant, ‘Go out into the highways and hedges, and compel them to come in, that my house may be filled. For I say to you that none of those men who were invited shall taste my supper.’” (Luke 14.23-24)

God loves us and is waiting for us to enter His Church. Enough of the excuses…find a Church and enjoy the banquet!

Saturday, December 11, 2010

“For what have I to do with judging those also who are outside?” Romans 5.12

New Testament Challenge, Day 27 – 1 Corinthians 1-9

I think Saint Paul makes a great point here that can be of benefit for us today especially in the case of sexual immorality. When Saint Paul said this about judgment, he had just commented in depth about sexual immorality. This tells us a very important point. The pastoral guidance and commandments in Scripture are for believers and not meant to convince nonbelievers to change their way of life.

To that point I’m sure you can think of at least once, if not many times, when during the same-sex marriage debate a Christian opens up the bible and begins to preach as if in Church. The problem is that the listeners are not believers. Why would they care what Saint Paul or Jesus Christ said about sexuality? For that matter even Saint Paul told Christians not to judge others right? And the debate continues not only ignoring the teaching of Christ but at times even belittling them as antiquated.

This is a great challenge for us as Christians if we are to take seriously our call to preach the Gospel and make disciples of all nations. If Scripture were written for us as believers then how do we go about convincing others that God came to save us? Part of the problem is that most people don’t think they need saving. In the ancient Church, especially for those under the Roman Empire, suffering was a common experience; in that atmosphere who wouldn’t want to be saved?

Today is different, but I think the readings in today’s New Testament Challenge are perfect for addressing this issue. If WE live as God expects us to, with love for each other, then others will want to become a part of that community. If visitors to our Churches find a group of loveless, angry, and bitter hypocrites, I doubt any of them would return for a second visit. They may even tell their friends, “Don’t bother with THAT Church; they didn’t even say good morning.” If visitors meet our parish leaders and find they are living boldly against the teachings of the Church while at the same time being held up as examples, I doubt they would ever step foot in our door.

The world has enough hypocrites. The world has enough hate and back-stabbing. People don’t need to find it in the Church too. Ultimately it boils down to the message of the Gospel. If we desire to live with God then we will act accordingly; if we don’t then we won’t. “For the message of the cross is foolishness to those who are perishing, but to us who are being saved it is the power of God.” (Romans 1.18)

Who are you?

Friday, December 10, 2010

“Do not let your good be spoken of as evil.” (Romans 14.16)

New Testament Challenge, Day 26 – Romans 9-16

While Saint Paul has been urging us to go out and preach the Gospel of Jesus Christ this quote seems to put a road block in our path. Inevitably we will encounter members of our Churches (Orthodox and non-Orthodox alike) who do not like the idea of bringing in “those new people” who will destroy the character of our parish. This xenophobia is nothing new to the Church. We saw in Acts and again today in Romans how Saint Paul was confronted with members of the Jewish elite who just didn’t want to allow Gentiles into the Church. Was it the same fear we find with founders in parishes today?

The challenge by Saint Paul to make sure our actions don’t cause the sin of our brothers and sisters is a tough cookie to swallow, for me anyway. “Resolve this, not to put a stumbling block or a cause to fall in our brother’s way.” (Romans 14.13) WHAT?! You mean to tell me that I am responsible for the sin of my brothers too? No, just read on…

Just before this admonition Saint Paul says, “So then each of us shall be account of himself to God. Therefore let us not judge one another.” (Romans 14.12-13) It’s quite clear that we are only responsible for the sin WE commit, but Saint Paul suggests that when our actions knowingly cause others to sin then we will be judged for the lack of love because we have knowingly caused our brother to sin.

For me this issue is not so difficult when it comes to keeping the commandments of God. I don’t know of many people who would consider being a faithful husband or a loving parent as evil. There must be something deeper to this challenge. I suspect it rests in the mission of the Church.

Saint Paul was speaking here in the context of those who because of their weakness of faith wouldn’t eat of certain meats found in the market place for fear they had been offered to idols. In THAT context, if our strong faith allows us to eat the meat without fear AND this causes the weak to have sinful thoughts of judgment against us, “for the kingdom of God is not eating and drinking, but righteousness and peace and joy in the Holy Spirit.” (Romans 14.17) This is a very common debate within the Orthodox Church on this very subject because of the commandment to fast. I won’t get into that here since I have blogged about fasting before. You can always read that later.

The hardest part of this challenge from Saint Paul is when it comes to the mission of the Church to reach out to visitors. When our efforts to reach out to others and invite them into our Church is attacked and even sabotaged with statements such as, “Why are you spending so much time trying to get new people in the Church rather than working to get the people we lost back in?” This is a good question, and one that requires a response.

If Saint Paul were to refuse to preach to the Gentiles until every last Jew embraced Jesus Christ, not only would he have died in the process, but us non-Jews wouldn’t be Christian today. The reality is that Saint did everything he could to convince his fellow Jews to embrace Jesus Christ. In fact our reading today began with that reality:
“I tell the truth in Christ, I am not lying, my conscience also bearing me witness in the Holy Spirit, that I have great sorrow and continual grief in my heart. For I could wish that I myself were accursed from Christ for my brethren, my countrymen according to the flesh, who are Israelites, to whom pertain the adoption, the glory, the covenants, the giving of the law, the service of God, and the promises, of whom are the fathers and from whom, according to the flesh, Christ came, who is over all, the eternally blessed God, Amen.” (Romans 9.1-5)
The sad fact is…some people just don’t want Jesus. The rest of us have to move on and continue to spread the Gospel to everyone who desires to hear it. Now if that action is spoken of as evil, turn to Saint Paul one last time when he says, “Now I urge you, brethren, note those who cause divisions and offences, contrary to the doctrine which you learned, and avoid them. For those who are such do not serve our Lord Jesus Christ.” (Romans 16.17-18)

Thursday, December 9, 2010

“It is the power of God to salvation” Romans 1.16

New Testament Challenge, Day 25 – Romans 1-8

Today we begin the pastoral letters of Saint Paul and, as such, the advice of a spiritual father to his children. If we look at these next days, reading Saint Paul, as though the letters were meant for us, we will grow to a much deeper spiritual level in Christ.

Saint Paul confirms what each of us knows too well. “For the good that I will to do, I do not do; but the evil that I will not to do, that I practice.” (Romans 7.19) How many times have we cried out these very words, or similar? But he wants us to know, “We also glory in tribulations, knowing that tribulation produces perseverance; and perseverance, character; and character, hope. Now hope does not disappoint, because the love of God has been poured out in our hearts by the Holy Spirit who was given to us.” (Romans 5.3-5)

Even though the struggle to live a good and holy life might seem too much for you to handle, remember this: “I am persuaded that neither death nor life, nor angels nor principalities nor powers, nor things present nor things to come, nor height nor depth, nor any other created thing, shall be able to separate us from the love of God which is in Christ Jesus our Lord.” (Romans 8.38-39)

After all….we are talking about the power of God to salvation….we’re talking about the Gospel!

Wednesday, December 8, 2010

“This man is doing nothing deserving of death of chains.” Acts 26.31

New Testament Challenge, Day 24 – Acts 22-28

We finish yet another section of the New Testament today. With the four Gospels and the Book of Acts complete, we have heard the message of God’s plan for our salvation. Remember how Saint Luke began Acts as if he were continuing where he left off? “The former account I made.” (Acts 1.1) We should therefore read Acts as “The Gospel According to Luke, Part 2” in order to grasp the complete benefit. It is meant for us to deepen our understanding of the mission of Christ and therefore the mission of the Church: to go and make disciples of Jesus Christ.

Sometimes that task will be easier said than done, as was Saint Paul’s case here in today’s readings. Although he had done nothing deserving of punishment, that did not keep those who hated his message from attacking him. The same is bound to happen to us as well. The comfort we should embrace, as well as the reality of suffering, comes from the Lord who said, “If the world hates you, know that it hated Me before it hated you.” (John 15.18)

This is not to say that we will always suffer for no benefit. Today we also read of his preaching while in prison in Rome where, “some were persuaded by the things which were spoken. Then Paul dwelt two whole years in his own rented house, and received all who came to him, preaching the things which concern the Lord Jesus Christ with all confidence, no one forbidding him.” (Acts 28.24,30-31)

Doesn’t it make you want to go out and start preaching? We’re all called to spread the Gospel. In the spirit of Saint Paul, begin with your family and expand your outreach from there. You never know who might be listening.

Tuesday, December 7, 2010

The Obedience of Saint Paul

New Testament Challenge, Day 23 – Acts 17-22
“And when we had come to Jerusalem, the brethren received us gladly. On the following day, Paul went in with us to James and all the elders were present. When he had greeted them, he told in detail those things which God had done among the Gentiles through his ministry. And when they heard it, they glorified the Lord.” Acts 21.17-20

Saint Paul is without a doubt the greatest missionary of Church history. The “Great Saint Paul” traveled thousands of miles and suffered countless attempts from the devil to defeat his ministry to bring the Gospel of Christ to the world. He was so central in the life the ancient Church, nearly 40% of the New Testament is either written by him or about him. And still he had to submit to the authority of the Church.

In fact we can see Paul’s ministry is framed by his being accountable to the authority of the Apostles and Elders in Jerusalem. Early in his ministry he traveled to Jerusalem “but they [the Disciples] were all afraid of him, and did not believe that he was a disciple. But Barnabas took him and brought him to the apostles.” (Acts 9.26-27) Barnabas was able to vouch for Saint Paul which lent him credibility. Then, as in today’s reading, at the end of his ministry he returned to Jerusalem and reported on all his efforts.

“Therefore do what we tell you: We have four men who have taken a vow. Take them and be purified with them, and pay their expenses so that they may shave their heads, and that al may know that those things of which they were informed concerning you are nothing, but that you yourself also walk orderly and keep the law.” (Acts 21-23-24)

“Then Paul took the men,” (Acts 21.26) and did exactly what Saint Peter commanded him to do. It seems to me that we can learn a great lesson on Christian humility and obedience from Saint Paul. None of us are beyond being held accountable to the authority of the Church and the Holy Apostles who received the Holy Spirit and were guided “into all truth.” (John 16.13) If they had the truth then we have the obligation as did Saint Paul to be obedient to them.

That is the essence of the Orthodox Church. We maintain the Church as established and commanded by the Holy Apostles. It was good enough for Saint Paul, it should be good enough for us.

Monday, December 6, 2010

“For it seemed good to the Holy Spirit and to us, to lay upon you no greater burden than these necessary things.” (Acts 15.28)

New Testament Challenge, Day 22 – Acts 11-16

Today we read of the great conflict that existed between the Jewish Christians and the Gentile Christians that created the first Council of church history. In a nutshell, the Jewish Christians were attempting to force upon the Gentile Christians the burden of obeying the Mosaic Laws, namely circumcision. At issue was the belief by the Jews that believers had to first be Jews before they could be saved as Christians. At some level, in their confusion of God’s will, this made sense since His coming was a fulfillment of Judaism and not some new world religion.

Today’s chapters are “the meat” of the Scriptural reference of the Jewish-Gentile conflicts within the Church. “Now the apostles and brethren who were in Judea heard that the Gentiles had also received the word of God. And when Peter came up to Jerusalem, those of the circumcision contended with him, saying, ‘You went in to uncircumcised men and ate with them!” (Acts 11.1-3) Saint Peter goes on to share the vision he received from God in defense of his keeping company with Gentiles. “What God has cleansed you much not call common.” (Acts 11.9)

This is the message for us as Orthodox Christians in America. So many of us were born into the faith that we too often forget that, like the Jews believe, we shouldn’t expect new believers in Orthodox Christianity to first be Greeks or Russians or Serbs etc. Orthodox Christianity is for everyone in the world who desires to follow Jesus Christ to heaven.

I pray that someday, through the Orthodox Christians Church in America we can share the call of the Jews. “And they glorified God, saying ‘Then God has also granted to the Gentiles [or Americans as in our case] repentance to life.’”

Orthodoxy is the truth faith in Jesus Christ established by His Apostles as the continuation of His saving work. Come and see! You too belong in the Church.

Sunday, December 5, 2010

She was Made Straight and Glorified God!

In the Gospel we hear of the healing of a woman who had been bent over with illness for eighteen years when Christ healed her. The response from the Jewish elite was, “There are six days on which men ought to work; therefore come and be healed on them, and not the Sabbath.” (Luke 13.14) This logic is flawed in two ways: God, and not man, did the work of healing; and showing compassion must never be seen as work.

Our Lord says, “So ought not this woman, being a daughter of Abraham, whom Satan has bound for eighteen years, be loosed from this bond on the Sabbath?” (Luke 13.16) The elite were willing to show compassion on their donkeys and oxen (see Luke 13.15) but not on their fellow human being. Whereas the woman glorified God for her healing, the elite couldn’t see God’s blessing through their own blindness.

Many of us encounter weakness that has persisted sometimes for many years. Have we brought our weakness to the Lord in His Church for healing or have we gone about our business and ignored the reality that God is present and can heal us even while we sit in Church. “Now He was teaching in the one of the synagogues on the Sabbath,” (Luke 13.10) when the woman came to Him. The woman didn’t consider it rude or offensive to bring her weakness to God in Church and neither should we.

And when we are healed, let us respond as the woman did and the crowd with her who “rejoiced for all the glorious things that were done by Him.” (Luke 13.17)

Saturday, December 4, 2010

A Fresh Start – The Book of Acts

New Testament Challenge, Day 20 – Acts 1-6

Having finished the four Gospels yesterday, today we begin a new section of the New Testament. In Acts we receive a great gift and glimpse into the life of the early Church. Some like to refer to the “birthday of the Church as being the Feast of Pentecost (Acts 2) but I have different perspective. Since we know from the Gospels that the coming of Christ was not a new idea but a fulfillment and, as we will see in the days to come by reading Acts and the writings of Saint Paul, a literal continuation of the People of God – the New Israel, then we must consider Acts and the scene of Pentecost as a “fresh start” rather than the beginning of the Church.

In repentance Jesus offers us, as many times as it takes, to have a fresh start on our relationship with Him. Acts underlines how that new start took place and how the Apostles and first Christians allowed their faith in the Risen Lord to govern their way of life.

If you have been participating in the New Testament Challenge, then you too have the chance to make a fresh start and allow what you have been reading to take control of your lives. You have the chance to allow the Love of God that you have received overflow to others. You have the chance to enter heaven no matter how you have lived in the past.

There is only one thing between you and that journey to heaven…..repentance. If you have never been baptized then you must ask yourself, “What shall we do?” (Acts 2.37) and receive the Gift of the Seal of the Holy Spirit in baptism and Chrismation. THEN you will be on the journey of salvation as shared by the first Christians in Acts.

Friday, December 3, 2010

The High Priestly Prayer – John 17

New Testament Challenge, Day 19 - John 17-21

In the tradition of the high priest of the Jews, Jesus offers the High Priestly Prayer in anticipation of His death on the Cross. This gives us a glimpse into the connection of Christ’s Passion and the worship of God. It has become popular to understand that death of Christ as fulfilling some mandate of God that blood must be shed in order to convince Him to forgive sins, but that reality is this prayer by our Lord before His death offers us a different perspective.

“Sanctify them by Your truth. Your word is truth. As you sent Me into the world, I also have sent them into the world. And for their sakes I sanctify Myself, that they also may be sanctified by the truth.” (John 17.17-19) There is no reference to “and forgive them their sins by this offering” or any other indication that His intent is the forgiveness of sins but rather our sanctification and union with God.

Jesus continues, “I do not pray for these alone, but also for those who will believe in Me through their word; [that’s us today] that they all may be one, as You, Father are in Me, and I in You; that they also may be one in Us.” (John 17.20-21) In these words Jesus is letting us know the divine purpose of His sacrifice on the Cross; not the forgiveness of sins but union with God.

That sounds like pretty good news to me!

Thursday, December 2, 2010

“Let not your heart be troubled.” (John 14.1)

New Testament Challenge, Day 18 - John 11-16

How many times we sit in our car stuck in traffic when we realized that we forgot to pray! How many times we toss and turn in our beds at night wondering how we’re going to make it through another day! How many times we wonder if God’s is really listening to us!
I sometimes think about that the Apostles must have had thoughts similar to these in those days just before the crucifixion of Christ. (I hear camel jams were really bad in those days ) In today’s readings Jesus gives great detail to His Disciples about the coming passion and death. He also, as John 14.1 indicates spends a great deal of energy trying to comfort them in their anxiety which is why I believe they shared the same worries we do.

The difference between the Disciples and us is not that they lived with Jesus. The difference is that we know now while our anxiety is taking place that Christ has already conquered death for us. We already know that we will live with Him forever in heaven. We already know that we will become partakers of divine nature. (2 Peter 1.4) We already know we have nothing to fear….so why do we still fear?

Jesus said, “Let not your heart be troubled; you believe in God, believe also in Me. In My Father’s house are many mansions; if it were not so, I would have told you. I go to prepare a place for you.” (John 14.1-2) I’m pretty sure THAT is a reason not to fear. After all, the Apostles had all that fear BEFORE the crucifixion. Once they learned of the resurrection and received the Holy Spirit, which we already have received, they no longer feared but had courage and faith.

Wednesday, December 1, 2010

“If you had known Me, you would have known My Father also.” (John 8.19)

New Testament Challenge, Day 17 – John 6-10

Yesterday I spoke of the importance of receiving Holy Communion as the means to truly known God. Today, Jesus confirms this by saying, “If you had known Me, you would have known My Father also.” How do we ever really know anybody but when we spend time with them person-to-person, or being in Communion with them? The same holds true with Jesus Christ. Today’s readings are filled with references to known God BY knowing Jesus Christ. That taken in combination with yesterday’s teachings on Holy Communion means that we cannot know God just by learning. Otherwise it would have not been necessary for God to come and dwell among us to begin with.

The fact is that God did come, in the person of the Incarnate Word of God – the Son, in order to recreate humanity and restore to humanity that which was lost in The Fall, namely our genuine human nature. Jesus came to lead us to heaven and the True Shepherd. “I have come that they may have life, and that they may have it more abundantly. I am the good shepherd. The good shepherd gives His life for the sheep.” (John 10.10-11) If we are His sheep we will follow Him and know Him. “I am the good shepherd; and I know My sheep, and am known by My own.” (John 10.14) And we can only known Him through Holy Communion.

One last point about today’s readings that should be noted; John 7.53-8.11 are not found in several ancient manuscripts and were likely not known to some Church Fathers like John Chrysostom yet they remain valid canonical books of the New Testament. An interesting teaching found here is in regard to the sinful woman and her accuser. “This woman was caught in adultery, in the very act.” (John 8.4) This begs the question: Where is the man she was with? Why wasn’t he brought for punishment? Could this be why Christ says, “He who is without sin among you, let him throw a stone at her first.” (John 8.7) In the end the real message is this: “’Has no one condemned you?’ She said, ‘No one, Lord.’ And Jesus said to her, ‘Neither do I condemn you; go and sin no more.’” (John 8.10-11) The call to repentance having been forgiven by God must be life-changing if the forgiveness is to have meaning. Without repentance the woman would likely have returned to adultery and been convicted of her sin. It is not enough to say the Lord loves us the way we are. We must admit that the Lord will always love us but that He desires us to repent of our sinful ways and live a new life in Communion with Him.