Monday, September 08, 2014
Sunday, September 07, 2014
Sermon Text: 1 John 2:3-6
“And by this we know that we have come to know Him, if we keep His commandments. Whoever says, ‘I know Him’ but does not keep His commandments is a liar, and the Truth is not in him; but whoever keeps His word, in him truly the love of God is perfected. By this we may know that we are in Him: whoever says he abides in Him ought to walk in the same way in which He walked.”
The Christian faith is all about knowing God. As the Lord Christ prays, “This is eternal Life, that they know You, the only true God, and Jesus Christ, whom You have sent” (Jn. 17:3). The great promise of the New Covenant, given by the Prophet Jeremiah, is that “no longer shall each one teach his neighbor and each his brother, saying, ‘Know the Lord,’ for they shall all know Me, from the least of them to the greatest, declares the Lord. For I will forgive their iniquity, and I will remember their sins no more” (Jer. 31:34). The New Testament then shows us that knowing the Lord, knowing God the Father, can only be done through knowing the Son and the Spirit: “Whoever has seen Me has seen the Father” (Jn. 14:9) and “when the Helper comes, whom I will send to you from the Father, the Spirit of Truth, who proceeds from the Father, He will bear witness about me” (Jn. 15:26). Eternal Life is found in knowing God, in knowing Father, Son, and Spirit, our sins and iniquities forgiven and forgotten.
But what does it mean to ‘know’ God? A lot rides on this question: eternal Life, in fact. My profession right now is a teacher of Bible and theology. I talk and write a good deal about who God is, according to the Scriptures, according to the great lights of Church history, according to contemporary thinkers. However, this doesn’t necessarily mean I actually know God. Knowing is more than factual information: anyone who has been married, or has children, or known anyone married, or been a child, knows this. The bare presentation of facts can keep us distant, aloof, from what or who we know. We live in a culture that constantly confuses us here: sound-bytes on news stations are not enough to actually figure out what is going on in Syria, in Iraq, in Ferguson, St. Louis, or anywhere else for that matter. We run the risk of interpreting according to our preconceived notions of how politics work, how religions work, how people work, in the process reducing the complexity of life and fellow human persons. Yet, we long to know and to be known. One of the most frightening passages in the Scriptures concerns this very problem: “Not everyone who says to Me, ‘Lord, Lord,’ will enter the Kingdom of Heaven, but the one who does the will of My Father who is in Heaven. On that day many will say to me, ‘Lord, Lord, did we not prophesy in Your Name, and cast out demons in Your Name, and do many mighty works in Your Name?’ And then I will declare to them, ‘I never knew you; depart from Me, you workers of lawlessness” (Matt. 7:21-23). They knew enough about the Lord Christ and the power of His Name (“for there is no other Name under Heaven given among men by which we must be saved” – Acts 4:12) to use it; but mighty works do not equal knowing God.
In that Gospel passage, along with the passage for today from 1 John, we find the key to knowing God. Who knows the Lord? “The one who does the will of My Father in Heaven” and “whoever keeps His word.” It is worth noting, at the outset, that this is not works-righteousness. The texts say that we know we know God by keeping the commandments, not that we earn grace by doing them. These are passages of assurance, not magical manipulation of the divine. Rather, the commandments are given to us, not to hold us down or “kill our fun,” but to be training in our union with Christ. The goal of human existence, from Adam to today, is to be like God: “Beloved, we are God’s children now, and what we will be has not yet appeared; but we know that when He appears we shall be like Him, because we shall see Him as He is. And everyone who thus hopes in Him purifies himself as He is pure” (1 Jn. 3:2-3). We are to be “partakers of the divine nature” as St Peter says in his second Epistle (1:4), which then leads him to encourage us to “give all diligence, adding 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” (5-7). The commandments are our path, our road, to Christ-likeness. As St Paul puts it, “we are His workmanship, created in Christ Jesus for good works, which God prepared beforehand, that we should walk in them” (Eph. 2:10): even our keeping of the commands, these good works, has been the plan of God all along.
What, though, are the commandments of Christ? The Gospel passage earlier tells us that they are not “mighty deeds” or “exorcisms” or even “prophecy” (although these things are not therefore automatically excluded from the Christian life: they just aren’t the central concern). If the commandments are to lead us to be like God, then we must ascertain what God is like. The Lord has done this abundantly all over the Scriptures, however the definitive understanding of our God comes through our Lord Jesus Christ. He shows us the character of God in both word and deed: “Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, so that you may be sons of your Father who is in Heaven. For He makes His sun rise on the evil and on the good, and sends rain on the just and on the unjust” (Matt. 5:44-45). And “Forgive them, Father, they know not what they do” (Luke 23:34). To put it simply, following St John, “God is love” (1 Jn. 4:8). The commandment of Christ, that which makes us like God, is to “believe on the Name of Jesus Christ and to love one another: whoever keeps His commandments abides in God, and God in him” (3:23-24). As the greatest commandment has it, “Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind and with all your strength…You shall love your neighbor as yourself” (Mk. 12:30-31). Love is the substance of keeping the commandments: not so that God will love us, but so that we might become what we always were supposed to be.
This much we know. But love is hard. We often don’t know how to love, so how can we keep the commandment? The Scriptures are awash in ways to do just this: they are a precise medical tool-kit to heal our souls and bring them into union with Christ. Many tools are on offer, but I’d like to focus on one that is very close to our experience: work. Many of us work, I’m sure, the standard 40-hour week. Some of us, no doubt, work more. Work controls many of our daylight hours in the weekday and there is always something that needs to be done around the house on the weekends. Can our work bring us into greater Christ-likeness? Can our work enable us to keep the commandment to love God, to love neighbor, to even love our enemies? Let’s see what the Scriptures say.
St Paul in Ephesians 4:28 says, “Let the thief no longer steal, but rather let him labor, doing honest work with his own hands, so that he may have something to share with anyone in need.” In this passage, the Apostle is revealing something vitally important about our work: it isn’t about us. The former thief works, not as a brutal penance, but so that he might love his neighbor. His disordered existence is being set right by this labor; how much more will this be true for us who may not have been thieves, but often feel enslaved by the need for more and more stuff and status and power? In another place St Paul reminds St Timothy, his co-laborer in the Gospel, “As for the rich in this present age, charge them not to be haughty, nor to set their hopes on the uncertainty of riches, but on God, who richly provides us with everything to enjoy. They are to do good, to be rich in good works, to be generous and ready to share, thus storing up treasure for themselves as a good foundation for the future, so that they may take hold of eternal life” (1 Tim. 6:17-19). Our work, the labor of our hands, whether it be in homemaking, or plumbing, or financial planning, or teaching, or civic leadership, is an opportunity to care for those among us who lack, both in the household of faith and outside of it.
This leads us to Christ’s interaction with the rich ruler. The young man claims he has kept all the commandments from his youth, to which our Lord responds that he should “Sell all that you have and distribute it to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven; and come, follow Me.” St Luke tells us, “when he heard these things, he became very sad, for he was extremely rich.” The problem here isn’t that he was rich, for Abraham and Job were both rich without condemnation; the problem was that his riches owned him. He was unable to “love his neighbor” as himself for his god would not allow him. St Basil the Great, a wonderful early theologian of the Church, says this about this passage, explicating Christ’s words of sorrow:
It is evident that you are far from fulfilling the commandment, and that you bear false witness within your own soul that you have loved your neighbor as yourself. For if what you say is true, that you have kept from your youth the commandment of love and have given to everyone the same as to yourself, then how did you come by this abundance of wealth? Care for the needy requires the expenditure of wealth: when all share alike, disbursing their possessions among themselves, they each receive a small portion for their individual needs. Thus, those who love their neighbor as themselves possess nothing more than their neighbor; yet surely, you seem to have great possessions! How else can this be, but that you have preferred your own enjoyment to the consolation of the many? For the more you abound in wealth, the more you lack in love.As our Lord says elsewhere, if something causes us to sin, it is better to cut it off and cast it away, and so enter into Life, rather than going to Hell with our whole body intact (Mk. 9:42-50): if our wealth, even that legitimately built up through our labor, causes us to pass by our brothers and sisters, it is better to cast it away than to cling on to it and miss the Kingdom of God.
Elsewhere, St Paul encourages us to “love one another…to do this more and more, and to aspire to live quietly, and to mind your own affairs, and to work with your hands, as we instructed you, so that you may walk properly before outsiders and be dependent on no one” (1 Thess. 4:9-12) or as he intensifies his speech in the second letter to that Church: “For even when we were with you, we would give you this command: if anyone is not willing to work, let him not eat. For we hear that some among you walk in idleness, not busy at work, but busybodies. Now such persons we command and encourage in the Lord Jesus Christ to do their work quietly and to earn their own living” (2 Thess. 3:10-12). Just as the reward of our labor can help us to love our neighbor in need, so does our work keep us from being a burden on others. Both are forms of loving our neighbors, loving our brothers. There will be times, due to economic circumstances or injury, in which we will need to depend on our brothers and sisters: during those times let us joyfully and cheerfully give to one another, not expecting anything in return. However, the loving generosity of our siblings in the Lord is not an excuse to become a mooch or a free-rider. This would not be showing love to them: rather, to become like Christ, to know Him, to keep His commandments, let us work, and as we work, let us give liberally and generously, encouraging one another in this task of becoming more and more like our Lord together.
We can work in love and for the love of our neighbors, for the necessary care of our families, and for the enjoyment of God’s good creation. But can we go further? Can we work for the love of God? Indeed, we can. It is the next step we must take as we seek to be “transformed by the renewal of our mind” (Rom. 12:2). How, though? We must take a moment to consider what powers are at our disposal during our lives. A human has three faculties: the physical, the mental, and the spiritual. When we work, we most often utilize the physical and mental faculties. The spiritual we retain for worship, whether at home or in church. This seems to set our work apart from our ability to love God “with all our heart, and with all our soul, and with all our mind, and with all our strength.” Such doesn’t have to be the case, though. St Paul, again, offers us two remedies for the transformation of our work into an area where we can love God fully. First, he says, “whether you eat or drink, or whatever you do, do all to the glory of God” (1 Cor. 10:31). All our existence, from eating and drinking to our labors, can be done to the glory of God: it is a choice of setting these things apart for that glory, offering it to God in each moment as a priest offers his sacrifice. Even our daily work then becomes worship. As St Augustine once said:
Love God and do whatever you please: for the soul trained in love to God will do nothing to offend the One who is Beloved.Our daily work then becomes not just a sacrifice, but an act of love for the One who first loved us. Second, the Apostle tells us to “Rejoice always, pray without ceasing, give thanks in all circumstances; for this is the will of God in Christ Jesus for you” (1 Thess. 5:16-18). When we work, are we rejoicing in the One who has given us “the power to get wealth, that He may confirm the covenant that he swore to your fathers” (Deut. 8:18)? When we work, are we praying without ceasing? There is such a thing as the heart praying, something deeper than just the mental prayers we often offer up. Have we sought the spiritual disciplines to develop this prayer, this prayer that prays in the Spirit even when our minds and hands are engaged in labor? When we work, are we giving thanks in all circumstances? This one, I think, is very hard. If we are honest, we love to complain about work (and especially about our bosses): the will of God for us is thanksgiving, in all circumstances. St John Chrysostom, one of the most famous preachers of all Church history, ended his life in a bitter exile. He had stood up to the corruption of the queen of the Roman Empire; she sent him to die far away from any influence he might have had. The final words he spoke, before leaving to go to his inevitable death, were “Glory to God for all things.” May God give us the strength to repeat these words in all our circumstances, most of which will not be as weighty and dire as his were.
To know God is to be saved; it is to keep the commandments and have the love of God perfected in us, as the Apostle John told us in his epistle. Our work, that normally mundane part of our lives that we share with all humankind, Christian or non-Christian, is in Christ and through His grace an avenue to know Him more deeply: to love our neighbors through generosity and diligence, to love God through our offering and our thanksgiving. Today is a day of rest, for which we can be thankful; how rest, and the giving of rest to others, can help us to love God is another topic for another day. Tomorrow, though, starts our labors once again, starts us on a path of Christ-likeness for His glory and for the sake of the salvation of the world. Let us go, then, in the strength of the Lord to our given labors, loving Him, loving our neighbors, loving our brothers and sisters, and even loving our enemies; so that through all this love we might become like Him who loved us that while “we were still enemies we were reconciled to God by the death of His Son” (Rom. 5:10). Glory to God.
Friday, September 05, 2014
Wednesday, September 03, 2014
It seems to me, at this particular moment, that social media is both perfect and tragic for our cultural and spiritual moment. We are Kafka's cockroach, alienated from any forms of life, even from the self, and certainly from God (a more bitter tragedy is that so many who vaunt themselves as close to God are the most estranged). The connection that social media offers, whether the ability to connect with family on Facebook or with a multitude of bros on Tinder, is alluring and often helpful. We long to be united, to be in communion with one another, the world at large, and the divine. So we post funny memes, relate tragic news, opine on all manner of subjects, yet...yet we go away still burdened with the loneliness, anxiety, and self-interestedness that we started with. Social media, and if we are honest most real social interactions (from friendships to marriages), do this.
Could it be that these longings cannot be satisfied, that we cannot find healing, because they are infinite? You cannot tell someone you love them once and expect it to stick forever, right? Rather it is a lifetime, as close to an infinity as we get, that proves the singular statement. But what a burden we who need love bear, then, when others need that same, infinite love! And so we settle, no matter how damaging it may truly be, for a measure of loneliness, of posturing and aggrandizement, of anxiety, since we find out very quickly in life that we cannot possibly meet the demands of love.
It is, then, the overcoming of this ugly ditch between us and infinite Love that is the true work of human existence, individual and corporate. The Source, the inexhaustible Well, has been primordially lost, and remains unattainable to mankind in their bondage. If the Well, though, were to open Itself up to us, giving freely, would we reject it? Would we, like the denizens of Plato's cave, reject the call of those freed for the comfort of our discomfort?
Forgiveness does not preclude or cancel out justice. St Paul's argument in the book of Romans, in some measure, is the revelation of the "righteousness" or "justice" (same word in Greek) that is revealed in the crucifixion of the Messiah, where our forgiveness is found. To forgive, in the deepest sense of the term, is to release (aphiami): we have been held in bondage by the one the Scriptures call the evil one, the devil, the serpent, the dragon, or the satan (yes, there is always a definite article). The Cross releases us, forgive us, from our sins by which we were held in slavery to death and unrighteousness. Since the serpent had no legitimate claim on us (he gained power by deceit and fraud), God's justice is our forgiveness.
Of course, this goes further and deeper. But this is why my last post was "forgive everyone for everything." Let's not hold each other in bondage, but release others as we have been released, just as we pray in the prayer given to us by our Lord: "forgive us our debts/trespasses, as we forgive our debtors/those who trespass against us." Forgiveness is the Kingdom come into our midst now; it is also the great promise of the Kingdom come in its fullness.
The tragedy of Beauty in our world, one which was totally avoidable, is that we don't see it except in small snatches of time. Mere moments when what we long for, what we truly and ontologically need, is an ever deepening experience and union with the Beautiful, what I previously termed 'epektasis', following the Nyssan.
The worse tragedy, though, is that we normalize the banal, as if beauty was an intrusion, analogous to how Deists understood miracles. Short and abnormal; fleeting, ephemeral, hevel hevlim as Qohelet says. We expect what we've mistakenly termed 'reality' and are shocked when beauty bursts through.
But, and relish that disjunction for a moment, if the cosmos really is made by the Word, a multitude of logoi that lead to, and share in, the Logos, then beauty is the norm. Our normal, whether we are discussing aesthetics or psychology or ethics or engineering, is Christ. But not Christ separate from the cosmos' experience of Him. There is no Christ behind the incarnate, crucified, and resurrected One. While He was born, lived, suffered, died, and was raised in our historical plane, He was also 'the Lamb slain from the foundations of the world.' How this is so is a proper mystery: we cannot know it rationally, but we can know it cardically. I've made up that word; the classical word is noetic, but we too often confuse the nous with the intellect, when rather it should be understood as the heart, the kardia, the faculty of union with God, the Inner Temple of the Spirit, which needs so much purification to be a proper abode.
It is with the heart that we truly see Beauty. But our hearts are blind, darkened by sin, and focused on pain and pleasure and the world in its pejorative sense. The cleansing and healing of the heart, so that Christ might dwell within, is the substance of salvation. This presents us with another mystery: this purification is the work of Christ, but also requires our own effort, yet it is all by grace; no man (or woman for that matter) could revivify the heart without the Holy Spirit of God. The Spirit makes it His abode, yet we -- even those with faith in Christ, or worse, especially those -- defile that Tabernacle with what does not satisfy: the Holy One dwells in holiness. This is the 'narrow gate' of the Lord.
If God is beauty, not just the most beautiful thing (as if He was a thing to be objectified), but beauty Himself, wouldn't all human life be properly oriented towards desiring, knowing, and uniting with that Beauty? Not to be lost or swallowed up, but rather to become beautiful, to become an icon, streaming myrrh and light, radiant light!
When we read that God has fashioned (made is such a droll word) us -- humans, all humans, no exceptions -- in His image and after His likeness, we glimpse our own ontic state: we are, primordially and essentially, His beauty in the world -- not His essence, but His activity, His energy, separate from Him by being created, but forever joined to Him, and invited into deeper epektatic and ecstatic union.
So why is it, and this is the question of man's fall into sin -- into that brutalist nothingness of which we spoke before -- that we seek to erase the image in others, at the same time defacing it in ourselves? The world will never truly need a philosophical atheism when it has the practice of continually killing God through this virulent iconoclasm (it is only a short step from destroying wood and paint to eradicating human lives).
And so we stand at the crux of a conundrum: we are made for Beauty, yet we murder it at all times and places. The conundrum is resolved -- not in a rational way, but only in the actual entering of mystical experience -- in the Cross. Here God (you will see why reason cannot grasp this now) willingly, willingly!, submits Himself to be brutalized, to be effaced, distorted, perverted, erased, to end the tyranny of the Great Ugliness. Since death, which is nothing in itself, cannot possibly stand in the presence of life, the conundrum become a paradox: this ugliest of moments, in which is concentrated all the evil, and sin, and corruption of the world and her history, reveals the incomprehensible Beauty behind and shot through all things. The Cross is apokalypsis, the unveiling of what is true, and good, and beautiful. To face the Cross, in its strange and unnerving ugliness and beauty, is to finally see the other: it was Christ all along.
Salvation is finding Christ is us, by partaking of this apocalypse, dying and raising.
We will extinguish all the beauty in the world, for comfort, for ease, for some tremulous grasp on security; worse, yet, we will hunt and hound the beautiful down to be merely right. Beauty is an expansive, encompassing thing, it (He?) yearns for inclusion and embrace; the Great Ugliness is nothing that can be perceived with the eyes or other senses, for it has no independent existence. It is hard here to grasp, for how can we reasonably talk about that which does not exist (yet is no fiction: it threatens the whole world). The Ugly, far from being analyzed in the halls of academe or the corridors of museums, is the sometimes slow, other times stark and irretrievable, reversion into the nothingness from which we have come. Existence desires existence, but emptiness is never full.
Saturday, August 23, 2014
To hurt, or injure, or do some injustice to another human being (or any other part of the creation) is not natural to man, but an aberration, a corruption, an infection upon the original and essential participation in the Image of God. Even sin, with its disastrous and cosmic effects, could not destroy the nature with which God made us. It can pervert, and misdirect, and even make it seem that sin is the truly natural thing (woe to us if we believe that lie!), but it can not obliterate God's good design.
This does not mean, however, that man makes "inherently" good choices (this is, in fact, one of the great theological non sequiturs of our recent history): without the grace and glory of God indwelling and pervading us, even our attempts at good cause harm. Two examples will have to suffice for now.
The ALS Bucket Challenge has raised a wonderful amount of awareness and not a small amount of money for research. However, in a world that so often hurts for water, how shall we justify our actions? (One friend I have went further and asked how we justify swimming pools; the point is well taken.) We are required to make what St Maximos calls a "gnomic" choice, an action of will in which there is no immediate right answer, but pragmatic or other factors than the Kingdom of God have full sway.
The other example, and I am going to be somewhat oblique about it, is when the financial stability of an institution requires the termination of employment for some workers (usually, as the case goes, those on the bottom rungs of the ladder, who are often the most financially vulnerable). To cause good, we cause great harm.
Let us now imagine that we have been hurt in some way: the reaction we have (remembering that our reactions, because of sin, act unnaturally, but also retain some connection and reflection to our original state) is protests of unfairness, injustice, or undue malice. Most likely, we will get at turns angry and depressed and so on. This leads us to the next stage: the judgment of the injurer. They are bad people, evil people, greedy people, etc. The use of the adjectival modifier, though, is not meant to describe the actions of the person, but their very nature: this is why we find it so hard to believe apologies or repentance, for how can anyone really change? It may be that the characteristic actions of a person are those called avarice, fair enough. But what modifier have we, unconsciously, chosen for ourselves? We are unforgiving. While we may have been hurt, and often badly and sometimes irreparably, the damage inflicted upon our souls and therefore the world by not forgiving is infinitely greater than any earthly injustice. "Fear not him who can kill the body, but rather him who can cast both body and soul into Gehenna." I've heard many interpretations of this passage, some saying the truly fearful one is Satan, some saying it is Christ, but the truly fearful one, the one St Augustine calls "nothing but a guide to my own self-destruction" is me. Christ gives us the prayer to "forgive us our trespasses, as we forgive those who trespass against us" for "if you do not forgive others their trespasses, neither will your Heavenly Father forgive you." To be unforgiving, to remember wrongs, to not seek reconciliation is to already be cast into Gehenna in the here-and-now, with the fullness thereof to be revealed later. To be forgiving is to be like God, so that forgiveness is His Image. By forgiveness we overcome the corrupting influences of sin: the Cross opens up the possibility to us, forgiveness is not something we do on our own.
Having this mind like Christ, we can see those who hurt us not as monsters, but as brothers and sisters (due to their shared humanity, not necessarily their faith) in need of the healing of Christ as we are in need of healing. St James tells us "
Tuesday, August 19, 2014
Of course, this goes further and deeper. "Forgive everyone for everything." Let's not hold each other in bondage, but release others as we have been released, just as we pray in the prayer given to us by our Lord: "forgive us our debts/trespasses, as we forgive our debtors/those who trespass against us." Forgiveness is the Kingdom come into our midst now; it is also the great promise of the Kingdom come in its fullness.