Friday, February 29, 2008

Salt of the earth

We who are called of Jesus Christ know for sure that we are at least what He says we are, “salt of the earth” (Matthew 5:13), and “a city set on a hill,” and even “the light of the world” (Matthew 5:14).
The last epithet He also said of Himself (John 8:12), but it butterflies my stomach when I hear Him saying something of me that He says of Himself.

So what does that make us? It’s true, some are called to be prophets, some teachers or apostles (Ephesians 4:11). But all of us are called to be “salt,” that is, the world’s preservative, and in another sense, the bite, because, as Martin Luther quipped, “what’s the good of salt if it doesn’t bite?”

Thursday, February 28, 2008

Must America be a theocracy?

After a succession of Republican-sponsored theocracies starting with the presidency of Ronald Reagan and continuing to the present administration of President George W. Bush, the Democratic party has just about had enough, and it believes the same of the American people.

Gradually increasing in strength from a modestly God-affirming but strongly ground-standing President like Ronald Reagan, who could perhaps be compared to one of the Crusader kings of the Middle Ages, the Republican dynasty came close to establishing a new emperor Constantine in George W. Bush. More aggressively supportive of Christian causes than his father the elder President George Bush, his career relative to his father’s in some ways reflected that of emperor Contantine relative to his father, Constantius Chlorus. But unless you know the history of the later Roman Empire, such comparisons are probably irrelevant. Suffice it to say that in the current President we have as close as we could expect to come to having a Christian emperor like Constantine the Great. Since the critics of Republican politics call it a theocracy, let me ask this question.

Which do you prefer, a theocracy with an anointed emperor at the helm, or a theocracy centered on a divine savior? America seems to be hell-bent on having one or the other. Oddly, though, since we are possibly the most materialist nation of all time and, though we give lip-service to whatever we are free to call “God,” we’re much better at trying to save others than we are at saving ourselves. I mean, economically, politically, socially and religiously, we want to save the world, but we would rather be left alone ourselves, to pursue our private “dreams.” We’re very generous with others, very reckless with ourselves, and our brand of Christianity follows suit.

Again, I ask, which do you prefer, a theocracy with an emperor, or one ruled by a god?

Myself, there is only one Theocracy, and it’s neither emulated nor represented by any current institution on earth, not church, not state. Despite America’s “manifest destiny,” I cannot and will not attribute to America the role of savior-nation to the world. There’s only one nation that has been given that role.

Who knows why we have this fatal bent in our American psyche, but we must have a theocracy at all costs, at any cost, even if it means giving to a mere man the worship that belongs only to the Most High.
πολλοι ελευσονται επι τω ονοματι μου λεγοντες οτι εγω ειμι και πολλους πλανησουσιν (Mark 13:6)

Tuesday, February 26, 2008

How can you say you love Jesus…

…but not the Church? This is a common saying nowadays of people who pretend to be believers but pit themselves against the Church.
I should say, they've made a rather big mistake, and one that's sure to cause them endless grief later on, if they don't come to their senses.
The ground of their complaint is itself a deeper mistake. They've mis-identified the Church, thinking it's one thing, when in fact it's quite another. They've had plenty of help doing it, too, from the institution itself, from the institutional church.

What the institutional church often does has absolutely little to nothing to do with the actual life of salvation. You simply cannot limit yourself to thinking that the institutional church is what Christ calls the Church. It's not.

The Church of Christ, His Bride, is present wherever He really is present in their midst, in reality, not in mere imagination or in shows of public piety.

When Christ is in our midst, we don't have to force ourselves to believe it; we know it, because the Spirit guarantees His presence by the signs that follow. And that presence among us which reveals the invisible church, making us visible to each other, bestows on us actual grace, not pretended, and establishes us in the Kingdom, and the Kingdom in us. That's the Church, the Bride of Christ, against whom no one who truly loves Jesus the Bridegroom can ever find fault, because He is with her and in her, and she with and in Him.

Brothers, find this Church and find yourself within her, and no matter what happens to the institution called "church" your faith can never be shaken; not because of her, but because her Spouse is with her, and hence with you, always.

Wednesday, February 6, 2008

The Border

Originally, the border between the Church and the world was put up, not by the Church, but by the world, which could find no use for, and would not tolerate, this indigestible people. The Church constituted something like an Indian reservation or a ghetto, or even worse, a leper colony within society, a social entity which should not be, but nonetheless was. It was an embarrassment for and accusation against the classes that ruled the world.

Among those untouchable and unmentionable people, leaders arose, chosen not for their excellence or eminence in any worldly endeavor, but for their abject surrender to the service of the others. The world looked on in wonder at these hopeless imbeciles following a crucified criminal, surprised that they could have so much love for one another, but even more stupefied at their lack of survival instinct—they didn’t fight back when attacked by the world, they prayed for, and even more incomprehensibly, thanked those who injured and killed them!

They would not contribute any more than was exacted from them for the maintenance of the world system. They didn’t stand up for their own rights. They didn’t agitate for social reforms or strive for the betterment of any society except their own. Only among themselves, by common and unwritten consent, did they abolish customs that the world regarded normal, but which they abhorred—infanticide, sexual license, slavery, the “festivals.” In this regard, the world felt justified in labeling them “haters of humanity,” in segregating and controlling them by an elaborate system of “tests,” such as the performance of acts of public worship to the state deities.

The charge of atheism brought against them was designed to infuriate the working masses of the world, which by and large were “religious,” and which could be depended upon to punish the Church at the slightest provocation, thereby freeing the world rulers from overt responsibility for the persecution of these deranged trouble makers, undeserving of the name “human.”

No, the world had no use for, and would not tolerate, this indigestible people. It would give them no avenue for worldly success or security—economic, educational, social—not unless they, individually, renounced their allegiance to their pathetic God by publicly conforming to the world system and taking what they called among themselves “the mark of the beast.” If they did that, they were allowed the cross the border. They were free at last from the unreasonable restrictions placed upon them by their crazy beliefs.

After some time had passed, the Church, to the astonishment and discomfort of the world and its rulers, had grown much larger than had been anticipated. The elaborate system of tests and containment strategies that they devised could not keep the borders of this neglected area from expanding. The Church even crept into places it had never been seen before. It was to be expected that among the unschooled rabble, some would defect to this weird cult, lured by the rumors of “brotherly love” and other such nonsense. Everyone knew that these were just cover-ups for their unnatural practices, hypocrites all of them.

But now, and with more and more regularity every day, it seemed that once responsible citizens of the world were becoming uncooperative and difficult, excusing themselves from participating in the rites and rituals, even refusing the world’s most reasonable demands. The infection had spread, from the mere denizens even to the rulers of the world order. What was to be done? How was the world to maintain the border between itself and the Church?

There was nothing else to do but, swallowing its pride (just for a moment), the world would have to “become” the Church. It would have to get inside (disgusting!) the barricade where all that refuse and filth calling itself “human” was holed up, and somehow harness that teeming multitude to a new “world machine” under its benign and rational management.

Since the other side of the border was now larger than the world, there was nothing to do but jump the fence. Soon, “under new management” the Church, having become the world, would be so universal, so thoroughly ecumenical, that to be a leader of it would be an even greater honor than it once was to be a world ruler in former times.

It didn’t matter, not really, that the world would have to let go its old props and proof texts and principles. The Church had a Book that it had gathered together from one of those barbaric, backward tribes, adding to it a few chapters of its own. These could be imbued with new meanings, this Book could be used as a kind of Trojan horse by the world rulers to bring their powerful premises into play, first blocking, then replacing the so-called “promises” in that stupid Book.

“The kingdom of the world has become the kingdom of our Lord and his Christ, and he will reign for ever and ever.” See? Their own Book is talking about us! Now, no one can oppose us! To make sure of this, all we have to do is establish “tests” to qualify only those who agree with us, send them to school, and teach them to parrot our plans. As for those who won’t…

So a new border had to be put up.
Again, it was put up by the world, not by the Church.

It became difficult, sometimes and in some places, to distinguish just who was on this side of the border, and who was on the other. The world had learned how to juggle names, titles and powers in such a way that sometimes even it got confused about who was who and which was which. The new border, though, did work. The Church was contained, even though imperfectly. The world now had a free hand to save itself, to save the planet, to liberate all humanity from the darkness of ancient superstition—Imagine that! A dying and resurrecting God!—and from the “haters of humanity” who think that they alone possess the truth, and that there is only one way!

“The nerve of that bunch of fanatics who call themselves ‘the Church’—why, we can’t even see them! But we can hear them, and they trouble us still, even to this day.”

But, my brothers, let me remind you of these things…

There is no need to be afraid, little flock, for it has pleased your Father to give you the Kingdom.
Luke 12:32

You must not love this passing world
or anything that is in the world.
The love of the Father cannot be
in any man who loves the world.
1 John 2:15

If the world hates you,
remember that it hated Me before you.
If you belonged to the world,
the world would love you as its own;
but because you do not belong to the world,
because My choice withdrew you from the world,
therefore the world hates you.
Remember the words I said to you:
A servant is not greater than his master.
If they persecuted Me,
they will persecute you too;
if they kept My word,
they will keep yours as well.
But it will be on My account that they will do all this,
because they do not know the One who sent Me.
John 15:18-21

I have told you all this
so that your faith may not be shaken.
They will expel you from the synagogues,
and indeed the hour is coming
when anyone who kills you will think he is doing a holy duty for God.
John 16:1-2

I have told you all this
so that you may find peace in Me.
In the world you will have trouble,
but be brave:
I have conquered the world.
John 16:33

Tuesday, February 5, 2008

Renouncing Iconoclasm

We have to renounce iconoclasm.
In so doing, we inherently set ourselves against certain forces within modernity.
The truth is eschatological, that is, it lies in the future, but we also believe that this eschatological reality was incarnate in Christ, the Beginning and the End, the Alpha and the Omega.
We do not oppose the future in embracing the Tradition we have received.
We embrace the future that is coming in Truth, rather than the false utopias of modern man’s imagination.

This thought, embraced and revealed in these few words, I found in the side panel of the blog Glory to God for All Things. A dear friend and sister in Christ forwarded me a link to a post at this blog entitled A Personal Salvation, and after reading it (it was excellent and true), I nosed around the blog and found the words quoted above. As far as Orthodox Christian blogs goes, it seems more deeply and simply Orthodox than many I've visited. The point that made sense to me in Renouncing Iconoclasm was that by faithfulness to the ancient faith, we are not trying to hold back the march of time and progress, the future. Instead, we are standing our ground in the eternal, which was from the beginning, so that we will be found standing there at the end, in the coming Kingdom of God, "the future that is coming in Truth."

Gretchen, thanks for sending me the link. I've added it to the side panel, so I can visit it again and recommend it to others.

Sunday, February 3, 2008

Once saved, always saved?

It's funny how "when it rains, it pours," isn't it?

A fellow blogger in Japan has a post entitled
Once Saved, Always Saved?
which I've commented on twice.

Today in his homily, our deacon contemptuously referred to the idea of "once saved, always saved." This phrase is certainly a Protestant logo, but there are probably as many ideas of what it means as there are believers in it.

Still, from an Orthodox viewpoint, is it true or false?

Our deacon, as well as our presbyter, are ex-Protestants, with possible Romophile (lovers of Rome) leanings (the deacon denies it). The average Orthodox believer (and I'm one of them), when we think at all (that is, thinking as the Western Christian thinks), knows that Rome means trouble, and that evangelical Christians are less of a danger, because they're trying to believe rightly rather than conquer others. That is also the Orthodox way, to strive to believe rightly, and so we can learn from each other, and since we know Who the Head of the Church is, we feel no compulsion to "conquer the brethren." Sounds familiar?

So, Fr Deacon ridicules the idea that you can't lose your salvation. "Of course, you can!" he says. But what I say is, "If you can lose it, it wasn't salvation in the first place!" Bringing the subject up at all is not Orthodox, it's divisive, but it's easier to talk about ideas all day instead of just living them, and so it goes. What I commented to my fellow blogger, I'd say to the deacon as well…

Here you're skirting those regions of the mind where the Western Christian has often strayed, saying and thinking things which the human mind cannot fully either comprehend or express rightly. As a result, drifting into these mental countries and settling there, building theological cities surrounded by philosophical walls, they gradually factionalize and soon come to fight over what is now so far removed from their true spiritual fatherland, they have lost sight of it altogether, preferring to strengthen their city walls against each other.

Does the Word of God explicitly say anywhere "once saved, always saved"? Yet the Word does declare that the Lord is faithful, even when we are unfaithful, and many such things that point to the certainty of our salvation once we turn to the Lord, accept Him in faith, and are born from above.
Personally, I believe that salvation is secure, once we have confessed with our lips that Jesus is Lord and believed in our hearts that He was raised from the dead (Romans 10:9), and that everyone who calls upon the name of the Lord will be saved (Romans 10:13). But I live my life in Christ according to the living words that I find in the Bible, trusting in them and not in any derived jingle. You see, the meaning is the same. Eastern (Orthodox) Christians tend to practice theology rather than speak it. I try to practice what the Word of God teaches and in so doing, "once saved, always saved" becomes true for me. Not by anything I do, mind you, but by God's grace, by letting Him do for me what I could never do for myself.

The danger, of course, is that if one builds his spiritual life around a derived saying instead of the whole Gospel Truth (the whole Word of God lived and believed), he's building a house on sand. Not in human words, but in the Word of God, is salvation. Jesus says, he who listens to His words and acts on them is building his house on bedrock (Luke 6:47-48). This, my brother, is what you and I are doing. Let's try to steer clear of the tactics of the one who divides (Greek, διαβολος, "devil") and accuses (Greek, κατηγορος, from which we also get "categorize"), and avoiding pointless controversies (2 Timothy 2:23), let's slip through the pews and escape to walk together with Jesus, guarded by the unity of the mind of Christ (Romans 15:6), which brings all thoughts into obedience to the Word (2 Corinthians 10:5), and in which we share fully when we keep His commandment to love one another (John 13:34).

Historically, in the Church of the seven councils, there was too much fighting over mere words. The (mostly Greek) fathers indulged in their propensity for rhetoric and argument, nit picking each other to death, looking for the lice of heresy. To be sure, of Arius they had to make an example, the speculative writings of Origen they had to censure, else the Church would have moved from the bedrock of biblical truth and onto the sand spit of human philosophy. But of some of their other deliberations, we can only shudder and pray for mercy.

Why condemn Nestorius for calling Mary Χριστοτοκος (Christ-bearer) instead of Θεοτοκος (God-bearer), and thus alienating an entire branch of Syrian believers? Is the Gospel really diminished if we just call Mary what the bible calls her, "highly favored" (Luke 1:28) and leave it at that? Because of the foolishness of men at that council, the whole body of Protestant disciples (rightly fleeing the corruptions of Rome) is now kept separate by the Orthodox, when in the light of the Gospel we are one.

My fellow blogger wrote that "God purifies by fire," perhaps implying that we need to correct the false beliefs of others? I responded…

Yes, God does purify with fire, but it's the angels' job, not ours (and that, at harvest time), to sort the tares from the wheat, lest we uproot some of the wheat (before it's ripe) as well (Matthew 13:24-30). Practically speaking, what I mean is, within the disciple flock, let's edify and strengthen what is sure and good in each other, and let Christ in His mercy, interceding for us in our foolishness before the Throne (Hebrews 4:14-16), purify us with the fire, not of our words and thoughts, but of His, and inwardly, with the correction of a father for his sons.

Whether you believe that once saved you are always saved, or whether you don't, my point is this: There is nothing to be gained and much to lose in debating and defining such things which, in the end, are all useless, vain speculations. Instead, let's seek first the kingdom of God and His righteousness, and all these things will be given to us as well. (Matthew 6:33).

Ramblings on the Body of Christ

Again, it will be like a man going on a journey, who called his servants and entrusted his property to them. To one he gave five talents of money, to another two talents, and to another one talent, each according to his ability. Then he went on his journey …
… 'Take the talent from him and give it to the one who has the ten talents. For everyone who has will be given more, and he will have an abundance. Whoever does not have, even what he has will be taken from him. And throw that worthless servant outside, into the darkness, where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth.'

Matthew 25:14-30 NIV

Did you know that the Body of Christ, that is, the Eucharist or Holy Communion, is actually referred to by Christ in His parable of the Ten Talents? What? No? Me neither! But that doesn't mean it ain't true. After all, Holy Trinity Cathedral's preaching deacon says it is! Here's how…

Coming to church every Sunday but not coming forward to receive the Body of Christ in Communion is like being the foolish servant who was given only one talent and buried it, instead of investing it. That's right. And to confirm this notion, Fr Deacon quoted from a modern English translation of John Chrysostom's Homily III on Ephesians. I tried to find his text on line, but all I could find was Christian Classics Ethereal Library's 19th century "ye and thou" version. It was interesting what John Chrysostom (Greek 'golden mouth', his nickname) had to say, but I still couldn't quite make the connexion between the parable and what Fr Deacon was trying to get across. Here's some of the things the deacon read to us…

"I observe many partaking of Christ’s Body lightly and just as it happens, and rather from custom and form, than consideration and understanding. …

"Oh! the force of custom and of prejudice! In vain is the daily Sacrifice, in vain do we stand before the Altar; there is no one to partake. These things I am saying, not to induce you to partake any how, but that ye should render yourselves worthy to partake. Art thou not worthy of the Sacrifice, nor of the participation? …

"Look, I entreat: a royal table is set before you, Angels minister at that table, the King Himself is there, and dost thou stand gaping? …

"He hath invited us to heaven, to the table of the great and wonderful King, and do we shrink and hesitate, instead of hastening and running to it? And what then is our hope of salvation? We cannot lay the blame on our weakness; we cannot on our nature. It is indolence and nothing else that renders us unworthy."

In his own words to us, Fr Deacon admonished us for coming to church and not receiving the Body of Christ. With Chrysostom he said, without receiving Communion, there's no point in being in church at all. Sheesh! You'd think that'd make people's heads take a tumble. But no! I looked around and the yiayias and pappous (grandmas and grandpas) were quietly taking this all in without batting an eyelash or squirming in their seats. And at Communion time, as usual, most of them, along with many of their juniors, stayed standing, while the rest of us sinners went up to receive. Hmm! And this in the face of the deacon reminding us, that after three absences in a row from the Cup, we are automatically excommunicated!

Orthodoxy can be quite funny. If I was an outsider looking in (is there ever really an 'outsider' among Christians?), over several Sundays in a row, I would be completely baffled. Who are these people who seem to be saying one thing now, and the complete opposite the next? Talk about diversity! Brothers, it wasn't always like this here, nor will it always be…

So, here it was, time for Communion. As usual, the kids and women go up first (and any men who are helping them). Then, it's our turn. We usually have three Cups, Fr Deacon on the left (that's where I usually go), the Proistámenos (senior pastor) in the middle, and Fr Marín (our Romanian priest) on the right. As I consider myself a goat, I go the left and let the sheep go right and center (though who knows, left and right from the nave might be right and left from the Throne). Fr Deacon and I have old ties to a church we both attended once, Saint Mark's. I also like to go to him for Communion because I know he likes to say the "formula" with my Russian-sounding name, "The servant of God, Román, receives the Body and Blood of Christ, to the forgiveness of sins and life eternal," to which I respond emphatically, "Amín!" It's kind of a ritual between us.

Today, however, just the way the line sorted itself out, I found myself standing in front of Fr Paul in the middle, a rare occurrence.
I quickly made a metanoia (bent down, touched the floor with the fingers of my right hand opened forward, and then after straightening up, crossed myself with my right hand), to show respect to Christ in the mysterion. Then, I grabbed a swatch of the red communion cloth and held it under my chin and opened wide like a good baby to receive the Body of Christ into my gaping mouth. The spoon held a morsel of bread like a blood-soaked sponge. As I partook, and wiped my lips on the cloth, all Fr Paul said was, "The Body of Christ." That was it! I still pronounced the "Amín!" as usual, but it just wasn't the same.

Where was "The servant of God, Romanós…"?
In Orthodoxy, every little thing counts. Nothing is added unecessarily, but also, nothing is taken away.
"…if anyone adds anything to them, God will add to him every plague mentioned in the Book; if anyone cuts anything out…" (Revelation 22:18-19 JB) It's because our worship is the earthly counterpart of the Divine Liturgy that is always going on in heaven, according to the book of Revelation, "…and day and night they never stopped singing: "Holy, Holy, Holy is the Lord God, the Almighty; He was, He is, and He is to come." (Revelation 4:8 JB).

Did I learn anything new today? Well, I dunno. Maybe this… Nothin' but nothin' quenches the thirst of a human soul like Jesus Christ, the Word of God. And if I haven't learned to partake of Him always and everywhere I go, then I haven't found Him anywhere.

"Lord, give us that bread always."
Jesus answered, "I am the bread of life.
He who comes to Me
will never be hungry;
he who believes in Me
will never thirst."
John 6:34-35 JB