Thursday, April 26, 2012

It Requires Courage and Determination to Grow the Church

Early in the morning of the first Pascha, before the sun had risen, the Myrrhbearing Women revealing great courage and determination journeyed in the darkness of early morning to the tomb of Christ to anoint His sacred body with spices. They were courageous because, not only was it before sunrise but there was fear that after Christ had been crucified, others might also be killed by the Jewish elite. But the women did not allow fear to hold them back. They were determined to carry out their responsibility to anoint His sacred body. Their courage and determination was rewarded by God when He first appeared to them and told them the Good News of His Resurrection.

The early Christians living in Jerusalem also revealed courage and determination when they were faced with a growing Church that lacked organization and resources. “There arose a complaint against the Hebrews by the Hellenists, because their widows were neglected in the daily distribution.” (Acts 6.1) Because of the large numbers of believers entering the Church, some were being neglected, not intentionally we can be sure, by the Apostles. Rather than not allowing new believers to enter the Church, the Apostles showed courage and determination and GREW the ministry of the Church by ordaining the first seven deacons saying, “It is not desirable that we should leave the word of God and serve tables. Therefore, brethren, seek out from among you seven men of good reputation, full of the Holy Spirit and wisdom, whom we may appoint over this business; but we will give ourselves continually to prayer and to the ministry of the word.” (Acts 6.3-4) Their courage and determination was rewarded by God, “and the number of the disciples multiplied greatly in Jerusalem, and a great many of the priests were obedient to the faith.” (Acts 6.7)

Now it’s YOUR turn to show courage and determination and grow YOUR faith in Christ. If you are looking for a Church to attend google your local Orthodox Church XYZ City and make plans to visit the Church for worship or Bible study or classes or just to meet the Clergy. If you already attend a local Orthodox Christian Church, consider growing your commitment and attend a special lecture or study session. Call the priest and schedule confession. It’s only with courage and determination that you will be able to grow closer to Christ – the church in your heart.

Wednesday, April 18, 2012

From Fear and Doubt to Faith and Wonders

In the evening of the first Pascha, the Apostles had locked themselves in a room because they were afraid of the Jewish elite, when Jesus appeared inside the room and said to them, “’Peace to you! As the Father has sent Me, I also send you.’ And when He had said this, He breathed on them, and said to them, ‘Receive the Holy Spirit.’” (John 20.21-22) But Thomas was not there and doubted the story the Apostles told when he arrived saying, “Unless I see in His hands the print of the nails, and put my finger into the print of the nails, and put my hand into His side, I will not believe.” (John 20.25) Eight days later, Thomas had his chance when Jesus appeared again in the locked room. After seeing Jesus with his own eyes, Thomas said, “’My Lord and my God!’ Jesus said to him, ‘Thomas, because you have seen Me, you have believed. Blessed are those who have not seen and yet have believed.’” (John 20.28-29)

We are those about whom Jesus speaks. We are those who have the chance to believe even though we haven’t seen with our physical eyes because we have the Church to stand as a witness as John wrote, “These are written that you may believe that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of God, and that believing you may have life in His name.” (John 20.31)

In less than two months (after Pentecost) the Apostles had gained so much faith that many miracles were accomplished them and thousands of people believed in the Risen Lord. “Through the hands of the Apostles many signs and wonders were done among the people….so that they brought the sick out into the streets so that at least the shadow of Peter passing might fall on some of them…and they were all healed.” (Acts 5.12-16)

We have celebrated the Resurrection of Our Lord, God and Savior Jesus Christ less than a week ago. In our Holy Baptism (our personal Pentecost) we received the Holy Spirit. Now is our chance to reveal our faith in Jesus Christ and accomplish wonders today so that many more people can come to believe and have faith in Jesus Christ. NOW is our chance to leave doubt and fear behind and embrace faith and wonders for the glory of the Risen Lord.

Christ is Risen!

Wednesday, April 11, 2012

What Does is it Really Mean to Love as a Christian?

There is a lot of pain in the world and I’m not talking about physical pain, although there is that pain too. I’m talking about emotional pain mostly caused by hurt feelings and abuse by others. Today in Florence, South Carolina, it was announced that a murderer was convicted and sentenced to more than 80 years in prison. Immediately the comments on Facebook started… reading some of the comments you might have thought the murderer was the devil himself, but I know the comments come from pain rather than hate.
If it’s one thing I have learned, it is that pain causes us to speak out in ways we would never have otherwise commented. During labor this is called “transition” and attending fathers are warned not to take personally what their wives “say” to them during this stage because, “It’s the pain talking.” In other circumstances, like today’s murder conviction, pain breeds frustration which brings more pain and anger, both acted out with what we hear as hate speech, especially from family members and friends of the victims. Such violent crimes bring increased pain on a society if no other reason than the feeling of hopelessness for a safer neighborhood or worries that “it could have been us in the store,” etc.

But this is where the rubber hits the road for Christians. We are called by our Lord to love our neighbors as ourselves and to love our enemies. Did Jesus really mean for us to love the person who violently killed our best friend? And if He did, what is that love supposed to look like?

Now let me just say I don’t believe loving a convicted murderer means letting him run free through society. All sin carries a price, both spiritually AND in society. I think that is where we allow our anger and pain to get out of control. We represent society so we feel it is our duty to inflict pain and suffering, sometimes even death, to convicted murderers. Some people even quote the Holy Scriptures where Saint Paul said

Let every soul be subject to the governing authorities. For there is no authority except from God, and the authorities that exist are appointed by God. Therefore whoever resists the authority resists the ordinance of God, and those who resist will bring judgment on themselves. For rulers are not a terror to good works, but to evil. Do you want to be unafraid of the authority? Do what is good, and you will have praise from the same. For he is God's minister to you for good. But if you do evil, be afraid; for he does not bear the sword in vain; for he is God's minister, an avenger to execute wrath on him who practices evil. Therefore you must be subject, not only because of wrath but also for conscience' sake. For because of this you also pay taxes, for they are God's ministers attending continually to this very thing. Render therefore to all their due: taxes to whom taxes are due, customs to whom customs, fear to whom fear, honor to whom honor. Owe no one anything except to love one another, for he who loves another has fulfilled the law. For the commandments, "You shall not commit adultery," "You shall not murder," "You shall not steal," "You shall not bear false witness," "You shall not covet," and if there is any other commandment, are all summed up in this saying, namely, "You shall love your neighbor as yourself." Love does no harm to a neighbor; therefore love is the fulfillment of the law. And do this, knowing the time, that now it is high time to awake out of sleep; for now our salvation is nearer than when we first believed. The night is far spent, the day is at hand. Therefore let us cast off the works of darkness, and let us put on the armor of light. Let us walk properly, as in the day, not in revelry and drunkenness, not in lewdness and lust, not in strife and envy. But put on the Lord Jesus Christ, and make no provision for the flesh, to fulfill its lusts. (Romans 13)

I don’t believe it is a coincidence that Saint Paul speaks of being subject to authority in the same context as he commands us to love. If we all loved more, there would be no need for courts and prisons; that’s for sure. We return then to how this love is to look?

As an Orthodox Christian Priest I will never suggest that God desires us to be violent to each other. The commandment to love one another is clear enough. He does however expect us sometimes to show “tough love” by having consequences for our actions. In the Old Testament Law, often misquoted by the way, “An eye for eye,” was a limitation to vengeance rather than a suggested response. It was only permissible to go as far someone had done to you, but no further. The same is the basis for many criminal codes in our country.

But Jesus clarified this when He said, “You have heard it said, ‘An eye for eye and a tooth for a tooth,’ but I tell you not to resist an evil person. But whoever slaps you on your right cheek, turn the other to him also.” (Matthew 5.38-39) And besides....who exactly is the victim?

We tend to take on the role of victim in our day quite readily but all sin is against God. The psalmist said, “Against You only have I sinned and done evil in Your sight; that You may be justified in Your words, and overcome when You are judged.” (Psalm 50.6) If we are not the victim, then “an eye for eye” bears no weight in our defense.

So we are once again back to what does this love look like? I think the best way we can love, even the most vicious criminals is to pray for them. After all, God loves them too, and no less than He loves us. Isn’t that worthy of a little mercy? There can be no room for death sentences for a Christian. Life in prison is sufficient for the protection of society AND it gives the criminal a chance of repentance.

I suppose it wouldn’t hurt if jail wasn’t perceived as a hotel stay either. I’ve heard from prison chaplains that prison, no matter what we might hear, is not a pleasant place to be.

I’ll close by admitting that I have never lost a close friend or relative in a violent crime so I do not know that level of pain, nor do I pretend to know. I’m just a priest trying to bring a little peace to a world full of pain.

Have a blessed Pascha (that’s the Christian Passover for you non-Orthodox readers out there)

Thursday, April 5, 2012

Behold, your King is Coming!

The arrival of any King or political leader is often met with fanfare and accolades from crowds of onlookers. For many people, meeting such a powerful person is an “once-in-a-lifetime” opportunity and few, even when they dislike the leader, pass an opportunity to meet him or her. This was even more valid in the time of Jesus Christ. Meeting the King or Emperor was just one step below meeting God Himself.
So when Jesus rode through the gates of Jerusalem on a donkey, the people recognized Him as their King as they called out, “Hosanna! Blessed is He who comes in the name of the Lord! The King of Israel!” (John 12.13) The people had been waiting their entire lifetime for a military king who would defeat the Romans and restore the Kingdom of Israel. For these pious Jews, the time had come to finally bring freedom. And Jesus accomplished this but many didn’t fully understand His mission as King.

In ancient times a King entered the city riding high on a white horse as a symbol of his victory and strength over the enemies. When Christ entered on a donkey, a humble seemingly weak animal, He was teaching that His Kingdom was not one of political, war-like strength, but peace and humility. Christ DID come to defeat the enemy, but the enemy was a spiritual one rather than political. And many just didn’t understand His mission as King.

Today is our chance to finally understand His mission as King. Today is our chance to declare Him as OUR King. His mission for us is to live in communion with God for all eternity in Heaven. If we declare Him as our King, He will claim us as His servants and protect us and care for us as a Good and Faithful King.

Come! And follow the King of Kings and enter Heaven! Join your voices with the voices of the crowd from so long ago…. “Save, now! Blessed is He who comes in the name of the Lord. The King of Israel!” and then let’s follow our King.

Wednesday, April 4, 2012

Blessed is He Who Comes in the Name of the Lord

These words shouted out on the first Palm Sunday to Jesus Christ some two thousand years ago by thousands of believers, just days before He would be arrested, convicted and put to death, reflects the trend of our fallen human nature. One moment we are praising God; the next moment we are ignoring Him.

When Jesus Christ took on human flesh for our salvation that meant we no longer were held captive by the devil and his shenanigans. With the announced coming of God into the world, as we just celebrated a few weeks ago with the Feast of Annunciation, He declared war on the devil and we were freed from death. It’s no surprise that the people cried such praises to God, but something changed in the people.

On that first Palm Sunday, those believing Jews were expecting Jesus Christ to rise up and finally put an end to the Roman occupation. They were expecting a military messiah but they received a spiritual savior who would save them from eternal death, by Himself dying and raising from the dead. Suddenly when they realized the reality of His impending death, they also realized they would be required to stand up for their faith in God and live a new life even risking being shunned or killed for their belief in Jesus. Many just could not show such faith.

In 2012 we run the same risk as those first believers my brothers and sisters. Many of us have been expecting a messiah who would make life easy if we believed in Him. He would take away all sickness if we believed in Him. He would bless us with nice homes and good jobs if we believed in Him. He would protect us from suffering if we believed in Him. Some refer to this as the Gospel of Prosperity. There is only one problem…..God never promised an easy ride.

We encounter the same need to stand up for our faith in God and live a life even risking being ridiculed and persecuted by those who either don’t believe in Him or by those who believe in the messiah that would make life easy. Just days after shouting out “Hosanna in the Highest!” many turned their backs on Jesus as He ascended the Cross. On Palm Sunday we will join our voices with those of the past and cry out, “Hosanna in the Highest!” Let us not turn our backs on Him.

This year, let’s take the opportunity of Great and Holy Pascha and rededicate our lives, individually and as a Parish Community, to keeping our eyes on Christ. Let’s not just “call” Him Lord, let’s actually treat Him as Lord as we will join our voice on April 15th with…

Christ is Risen! Χριστός Ανέστη! Христос Воскресе! Hristos a înviat! Al-Masih-Qam! Cristo ha resucitado! ქრისტე აღსდგა! Truly He is Risen!

I look forward to seeing you in Church during Holy Week!

+ Father Athanasios