Monday, September 25, 2017

THAT YE LOVE ONE ANOTHER

The Holy Apostle, Evangelist, and Theologian John assures us, "For God so loved the world that He gave His Only-begotten Son, that whoever believeth in Him should not perish, but have everlasting life....  For God sent not His Son into the world to condemn the world; but that the world through Him might be saved." This is good news indeed!  For if any of us were to be judged strictly according to how successfully we have invested that talent entrusted to us at our Baptism,  it is unlikely that we could hope to be saved. 

Consider, if you will, the gospel account of the woman caught in adultery: according to the letter of the Jewish Law, she should have been stoned to death, thereby reflecting a harsh and uncompromising understanding of God's justice still enforced in Muslim  countries unto this day.  (And it should be noted that nowhere in the Koran is love an attribute attributed to the falsely conceived Muslim God, Allah).  But when, in the fullness of time, our Lord, God, and Savior Jesus Christ reveals Himself in the flesh, he imparts to His disciples a New Commandment that supersedes (or rather, fulfills) the Law of Moses: that we love one another, even as He has loved us. For truly, as St. John the Theologian assures us, God is love, and therefore it follows that "He desires not the death of the sinner, but rather that the sinner should turn from his way and live."

A perfect example of God's ardent desire for the salvation of the sinner is recorded in His encounter with the woman caught in adultery.  The Jewish rulers expect our Lord to uphold the decree of condemnation, to support the letter of the Jewish Law.  But as on previous occasions, He surprises them.  He pauses, while writing something in the dust of the ground with His finger.  Or is He merely doodling, trying to gain time while thinking through His response--or perhaps for the sake of a dramatic effect?  Not at all!  According to tradition, he is revealing in bold terms the past sins of those hypocrites who are seeking to bring the woman to justice.  Only then does He proclaim, "Let he who is without sin cast the first stone."

Does this mean, however, that Jesus excuses--or even condones--sin?  Is He, in effect, telling the woman that what she did is no big deal after all, that all is automatically forgiven through the superabundant love of God?  Definitely not!  He says, rather, "Neither do I condemn you.  Go, and sin no more."  Indeed He does not condemn.  It is rather we who condemn ourselves to eternal separation from God by our failure to sincerely repent of the multitudinous sins we have committed every day of our lives--whether by thought, word, deed, or desire.  By rejecting the commandment of love, we reject God, thereby separating ourselves from true and eternal life in His heavenly Kingdom.

So while it is true that God's love is unconditional, His forgiveness is not.  He forgives us our debts only to the extent that we forgive our debtors.  And while He assures us that those who believe in Him will be granted eternal life, mere belief obviously isn't enough.  For if we truly believe in Him, we will strive day and night to abide by His commandments--and above all, the commandment of love--for as it is written, even the devils believe... and tremble.

His desire for our salvation far exceeds our own.  If it were other wise, we would strive and struggle unto the very end to increase whatever talents God has entrusted unto us.  We would be diligent in prayer and every form of self-denial, ever seeking to acquire a genuine spirit of repentance, that through God's grace and mercy, we might be found worthy on that dreadful day of judgment to inherit those eternal good things God has in store for those who love Him.

Monday, September 11, 2017

THE MARRIAGE FEAST

The Marriage Feast in today's Gospel is an image of that eternal Kingdom of God, to which "many are called and few are chosen," prepared for those who love Him and abide by His commandments.  According to this parable, the King (God the Father) "sent forth His servants to call them that were bidden to the wedding of His Son" (our Lord, God, and Savior Jesus Christ): and they would not come.  And indeed, "they made light of it, and went their ways, one to his farm, another to his merchandise."  That is, they were so caught up in the affairs of this world that they failed to perceive those eternal good things God has in store for those endure unto the end the trials and tribulations of this earthly life for the sake of a better hope.

They were invited to the wedding--to enter into true and eternal life in God's heavenly Kingdom--yet they thoughtlessly spurned   this gift, freely choosing instead to live their lives in bondage to the false and superficial goals and desires of this world.  So it is that we ourselves are responsible for our ultimate destiny.  We can either chose to accept God's gracious invitation to enter into the joy of eternal life and salvation, or we can willingly and voluntarily consign ourselves to a hell of our own making.

It is sure and certain that it is not God Who created hell, nor does He "send" us there as punishment for being "bad."  When the King's servants were, in the end, sent forth into the highways, they "gathered together all as many as they found, both bad and good."   Nowhere in the Holy Scriptures is it said that we are saved because we are "good," for indeed:  "God desires not the death of the sinner, but rather that the sinner should turn from his way and live."  It is, rather, through sincere repentance and a fervent desire to live our lives in accordance with God's commandments that we are made worthy to receive within ourselves the transforming grace of the Holy Spirit, that by dying to the false promises of this world, we might be made worthy to inherit our true destiny as sons and daughters of God.

So who is to blame if we find ourselves in the end cast into that place of outer darkness, where there shall be weeping and gnashing of teeth, because we would dare to enter the wedding feast without a wedding garment--that is, those virtues we are all called to acquire--above all, that humble and contrite heart which God does not despise?  (According to Jewish custom, by the way, the wedding garment was provided for all guests as they entered, so there can be no excuse for not wearing it.) God is love, and so--if we truly desire in our hearts to be made worthy of His Kingdom, we must pray above all for humility, patience, the gift of love in our hearts--and all things needful for our eternal salvation in his heavenly Kingdom.

Sunday, August 20, 2017

THAT YE LOVE ONE ANOTHER

"Therefore is the kingdom of heaven likened unto... a certain king, which would take account of his servants."  In numerous occasions throughout the Gospels, in fact, our Lord likens the Kingdom to this, that, or the other.  But why does he so often speak in parables, likening it to something else, rather than simply explaining to His listeners what the Kingdom actually is?  It is because those good things God has in store for those who love Him and abide by His commandments belong to a realm so far beyond anything of which the human mind is capable of conceiving that it is only through a comparison with the things of this world that we can begin to grasp that ineffable reality that transcends even the most exalted philosophical construct that is rooted in our experience of this visible and transient world.

It is through the eyes of faith alone that we can begin to perceive beyond and beneath this phenomenal world of the five senses a realm of existence rooted not in time, but in eternity, unbounded by the limitations of space and time because it is permeated by the boundless and unconditional love of God.  For truly, it seems to me (sinful and unclean though I am, mired in the mud of the passions) that the love of God (or rather, the God Who is love) is not only the foundation and ultimate goal of the entire created order, but also the only means we are given by which we might (by God's grace) cast aside the darkness of sin and despair and be made worthy in the end of that ineffable glory of eternal life in God's heavenly Kingdom. 

But meanwhile, these heartfelt words of mine are... just words.  Trials and tribulations abound for us all, for having been called forth from non-existence into being, we have been cast forth upon the sea of life, beset by the raging waves of the passions, often struggling merely to tread water amidst the tumultuous waves of this storm-tossed world.

Only, "Seek ye first the Kingdom of God," Christ commands us, and all else that is necessary for us in this earthly life will be added unto us.  Therefore, "Do not be anxious for tomorrow, for sufficient unto the day is the evil thereof."  Indeed it is!  As for the ultimate goal of our existence--true and eternal life in the Kingdom of God--this cannot be comprehended by words alone.  It can only be experienced --in the here and now--through striving by every possible means to live our lives in accordance with the commandments of God.  Above all, that we might abide by our Lord's first and foremost commandment, "That ye love one another."  This much we can surely  do, if we remember that God first loved us, having so loved the world that "He sent His only-begotten Son, that whoever believes in Him" might enjoy the fullness of life in His eternal Kingdom.   And so we are enjoined to love our enemies, to pray for those who persecute us, and to forgive those who have trespassed against us as we ourselves have been forgiven.  Only then shall our fallen human nature be transfigured by the uncreated light of God's glory.

For if we struggle at all times during this earthly pilgrimage to keep this one simple command--that we "love one another"-- we are already close to the Kingdom--which is a Kingdom not of words and theological discourse, but rather of the power of God at work in a humble and contrite heart in which every egotistical thought and desire has been put to death, that having died with Christ in the waters of Baptism, we might be deemed worthy of resurrection to eternal life.

Monday, August 14, 2017

A GRAIN OF MUSTARD SEED

`While Jesus was on the Mount of Transfiguration with Peter, James, and John, the other disciples were approached by a man whose son "was lunatic, and sore vexed"--but the disciples were in nowise able to cast out the demon.  At our Lord's rebuke, however, the demon "departed out of him: and the child was cured from that very hour."  Afterwards, when the disciples came to Jesus and asked why they could not cast out the demon, He replied, "Because of your unbelief: for verily I say unto you, if ye have faith as a grain of mustard seed, ye shall say unto this mountain, Remove hence to yonder place; and it shall remove; and nothing shall be impossible to you."  Now a mustard seed is indeed very tiny and seemingly of no significance, but I cannot help but wonder: do you and I, as 21st Century Christians, living in a secular, post-Christian society on the very brink of the Apocalypse have faith even in proportion to an amoeba? 

Compared to the first Christians, fervent in faith and empowered by the grace of the Holy Spirit to work miracles and to endure for the sake of Christ persecutions, sufferings, and martyrdom itself--it would seem that we are a miserable lot indeed.  It seems to me that we are, for the most part, Christians in name only, professing to believe--while hardly daring to venture beyond the limits of our comfort zone.  If our prayers are for the most part feeble and ineffective, it is because we have failed to acquire that living faith through which it is possible to overcome every obstacle upon the path of salvation.

Such a faith truly is, you see, a gift of God... but it is certainly not  a free gift.  It is only given to those who struggle for virtue and persevere unto the end upon the path of salvation.  Thus, our Lord assures his disciples that "this kind goeth not out but by prayer and fasting."  True it is that it is by faith we are saved, and not by the works of the Law.  Nevertheless, it is an inconvertible truth that "faith without works is dead."  Christ Himself assures us that "straight and narrow is the path" that leads to true and eternal life in His heavenly Kingdom.  But let's face it: we contemporary Christians of the last and final generation are pampered and lazy, accustomed as we are  to think that life in this fallen world should be easy and essentially pain free.  The so-called "good life" is to acquire as many earthly goods as we can, and to strive to achieve a superficial happiness based upon the fulfillment of our own self-centered desires.

"For my yoke is easy and my burden is light," says our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ.  But this is a promise only given to those who have taken up their cross of sacrificial suffering and followed Him, enduring unto the end the trials and tribulations of this earthly life, putting to death every egotistical thought and desire, that we might say with the Holy Apostle, that it is no longer I who live... but Christ liveth in me.

Saturday, July 29, 2017

THE MIND OF THE CHURCH

St. Paul writes to the Corinthians, "Now I beseech you, brethren, by the name of our Lord Jesus Christ, that ye all speak the same thing, and that there be no divisions among you; but that ye be perfectly joined together in the same mind and in the same judgment."  The same mind... that is to say, the Mind of the Church.  There is, in fact, no place in the Church for "personal opinion"... so long as that opinion is in any way contrary to that Truth revealed by Christ, preached by the Holy Apostles, and sealed by the blood of the Martyrs.

As the Most Holy Trinity is one and undivided, so it is essential that we all should strive as members of Christ's Body--the Church--"to be perfectly joined together in the same mind and the same judgment."  If, on the other hand, we pridefully insist upon our own personal opinion, we prove ourselves--having rent asunder the seamless robe of Christ-- to be of one mind with Arius, along with all those other heretics who were rightfully cast from the universal Church by the Holy Fathers of the Ecumenical Councils.

Nowadays, of course, to merely mention heresy is considered politically incorrect: decidedly judgmental and counter to that spirit of relativism that infects contemporary society.  Admittedly, this term is too often used as a bludgeon against anyone who dares to deviate from that strict interpretation of the Faith that we ourselves fall short of fulfilling in our daily lives... rather like saying that a certain someone whose views do not align with our own political philosophy is "literally Hitler."

Having said this, however, it must be affirmed that heresy has been from the very beginning and remains to this day a real and present danger to the salvation of human souls.  To deviate from the Mind of the Church--even though ever so slightly--can only lead to a profound spiritual blindness and bondage to those demonic powers of the air whose one and only purpose is to drag, by any means possible, our immortal souls into that place of outer darkness, where there shall be weeping and gnashing of teeth.

The Church of Christ--the Holy Orthodox Church--truly is the Ark of Salvation, the only place of refuge and safety in this storm tossed world.  To depart from the teachings of the God-inspired Holy Fathers of the Church is the sure and certain means of courting spiritual shipwreck and disaster, thereby setting our souls upon a perilous path toward a self-chosen damnation in a hell of our own making.  May our All-merciful God guard and preserve us from this danger--both now and at the moment of our soul's departure from this world.

Saturday, July 8, 2017

EVEN THE DEMONS BELIEVE

The Holy Apostle Paul assures the Ephesians, "For we wrestle not against flesh and blood, but against principalities, against powers, against the rulers of the darkness of this world, against spiritual wickedness in high places."  Here he refers to that vast multitude of demonic hosts that inhabit the air around us, ever striving to corrupt our minds and hearts during the course of this earthly life, while obstructing the course of our path to the Throne of God at that dreadful moment when the soul departs from the body. 

Nevertheless, it is evident from today's Gospel reading that the demons are, in a sense, but paper tigers.  Though Satan has been given leave, according to the providence of God, to prowl the earth, like a ravening lion seeking whom he may devour, his rule is strictly limited to the time preceding the Final Judgment of God, and even so, it is subject to the supreme authority of Jesus Christ the Pantocrator.  And so it is that the demons cry out to our Lord, "What have we to do with Thee, Jesus, thou Son of God?  art thou come to torment us before the time?"

And so it is that even the demons are compelled to confess Christ.  As St. James writes, "Thou believest that there is one God; thou doest well: the devils also believe, and tremble."  So it is that even the demons, while confessing Christ, require His permission to enter the swine, "and behold, the whole herd of swine ran violently down a steep place, and perished in the waters."  For truly Satan is a murderer from the beginning, and that very same destruction the demons wrought upon the swine, they would gladly accomplish upon the human race.  Fortunately, though, the demons have not been granted the power to destroy a single human life.  Through their wicked suggestions, they can surely incline us towards that dark path of destruction that leads to eternal damnation in a hell of our own making... but only if we freely and voluntarily submit ourselves to their authority.

Having been baptized into Christ, we Orthodox Christians have put on Christ, and therefore we have been given, through the Church, the armor of God and the weapons required that we might engage in that spiritual warfare to which  we have been called.  For while we should never underestimate the powers of evil arrayed against us, and while the demons are indeed fierce adversaries fully capable of striking abject fear into the hearts of the faithful, we must ever keep in mind St. Paul's injunction, "If God is for us, who can be against us?"  For indeed, through the power of the most sacred and life-giving Cross, "we are more than conquerors through Him Who loved us:" our Lord, God, and Savior Jesus Christ.

Thursday, July 6, 2017

THE WAGES OF SIN

"For the wages of sin is death; but the gift of God is eternal life through Jesus Christ our Lord."  In this passage in St. Paul's Epistle to the Romans, the Holy Apostle refers to that recompense which each and every soul born into this world is due to receive in the life to come, according to how he or she has labored in this earthly life: whether we have striven to acquire virtue and the gift of the Holy Spirit of God in our hearts, or else we have willfully aligned  ourselves with Satan and his demonic hosts by indulging our sinful passions.  The first path leads to eternal life in communion with God, while the second path leads to the spiritual death of our soul and eternal communion with the Spirit of Evil.  It is for this reason that we pray in the Lord's Prayer, "Deliver us from  the Evil One."

The surest way of attaining eternal life in God's heavenly Kingdom is through sincere and heartfelt repentance, combined with humility and a prayerful desire to acquire God's gift of love in our heart.  If, by the grace of God, we are deemed worthy to patiently endure this struggle unto the end, it matters not if we have labored in the Lord's vineyard from the first hour or the eleventh: we shall receive the very same wages: eternal life and salvation in the Kingdom of our heavenly Father.

Truly it is given to every man to die once--and then to be judged according to how well we have invested those talents God has granted to us in this earthly life.  Have we utilized wisely the time and resources allotted to us, or have we, like the Prodigal Son, foolishly squandered the good gifts of God?  According to the unanimous consensus of the Church Fathers and the Holy Tradition of the Church, it has been revealed that in that very moment of death, when the soul is forcibly sundered from the body, we shall encounter not only our Guardian Angel, but a vast multitude of demons as well, intent on dragging our soul into the dark and dismal depths of Hades.  As we rise through the air (the domain of the "principalities and powers," the demonic hosts who dwell in "high places") we shall be required to pass through a series of so-called "toll houses,"  each one devoted to a particular sin or passion--wherein we shall be detained by demons who accuse us of those various and sundry unconfessed sins we have committed during our sojourn on earth--whether in thought, word, deed, or desire. 

It is true, as St. John the Theologian assures us, that "God is love,"  and therefore... He does not desire the death of a sinner, but rather that he should return from his way and live. It is an inconvertible truth, nevertheless, that if we have willfully separated ourselves from God in this life by  participating with the demons in their evil works in rebellion against the Law of Love, then it is only natural that the spirits of darkness should be fully justified in claiming that which is rightfully theirs: our immortal souls.  And so--having defaced the image of God within us--we shall be dragged into the depths of Hades, that place of outer darkness where there shall be weeping and the gnashing of teeth.  And so we shall obtain the wages of sin: eternal death in a hell of our own making.

Let us make haste, therefore, while there is still time, before that dreadful day of reckoning overtakes us like a thief in the night, to live a life of repentance, humbly confessing our sins before God, casting aside the works of darkness while striving to clothe ourselves in the armor of light.  Through the prayers of the Most Holy Theotokos and all the saints, let us beseech our God to have mercy upon us, that in the hour of death, we might be delivered from the dreadful accusation of the demons and be found worthy of ascending to the Throne of God.