Thursday, May 18, 2006

 

"Born Again"

"Jesus answered and said to him, "Most assuredly, I say to you, unless one is born again, he cannot see the kingdom of God". Nicodemus said to Him, "how can a man be born when he is old? Can he enter a second time into his mother's womb and be born"? Jesus answered, "Most assuredly I say to you, unless one is born of water and the Spirit, he cannot enter the kingdom of God. That which is born of the flesh is flesh,and that which is born of the Spirit is spirit. Do not marvel that I said to you, "You must be born again". (St. John 3:3-7)

To understand the Lord, to understand what is of the Spirit, one must be awakened to the Spirit, and walk in newness of life. The beginning of this process comes in the new birth of Holy Baptism, which is birth of water and the Holy Spirit, and is entry into the Church. Once in the Church, one has to continue this process of new birth, of the new man, in order to understand Christ, the Lord, Who spoke these words.

We must remember a few things here. These men, who are asking Christ about the Kingdom,do not understand His reply of rebirth, of the washing of regeneration that Holy Baptism is. They don't understand it because they live in the physical realm only, and have not grasped the greaterness of creation and their own existence. It is the Holy Spirit, helping the physical man become a new man, that allows us to begin understanding those things which the Incarnate Son has revealed about the Holy Trinity, the One True God. The Spirit transforms us, gives us a new birth. It did so with the Holy Apostles at Pentecost, where all doubts and fears were dispelled, and they proclaimed Christ faithfully and boldly, even unto a triumphant martyric death. For blessed are those who die for Christ, because they have received the Crown of Life, and whosoever loses their life for Him shall find it.

We are baptized and come into the Church, but once in the Church, do we know all there is to know of Christ, because we have received this "rebirth" in Holy Baptism. Certainly not. Certainly, the Holy Scriptures witness that our knowledge of God is a process that is never exhausted, because God Himself is not exhausted. We will never know all there is to know about God...for He is infinite. We know what He has revealed for us. Therefore, being born again is less something one proudly claims as a "title", that they have somehow "broken through". Rather, we strive every day and every hour, to be constantly reborn, to remain in that new regenerative birth, that new man...to perfect holiness in the fear of God, to run the race with fortitude and faith in the things not seen but believed.

To claim that this rebirth is accomplished, to hold it up and claim it for one's self, is to illustrate a spiritual pride that is altogether foreign to the humility of Christ. If it is a process, to have Christ etched onto us, if the Apostles instruct us to work out and perfect our holiness, can we turn around and say "it's done, I got it". Claiming it, without the necessary struggle, without the necessary crucifixion of our passions, flesh, weaknesses, without the humility of Christ and the saints, His friends, then we really haven't accomplished anything.

Words are easy to say. It's not difficult to say "I am born again". But a tree is known by its fruit. Being born again is not something subjective, you break through when the Spirit enlightens--not when you claim it for yourself.

Monday, May 15, 2006

 

A Little Biblical Veneration of the Saints

Some Protestant friends of mine have argued that Orthodox, and Roman Catholics (who also believe in a communion of saints), are wrong to venerate saints. This struck me as odd, because, in looking at the Holy Scriptures, it is not at all uncommon to see veneration for the Apostles during the earliest years of the holy Church. The Apostles, who were men, through Christ performed "many signs and wonders" (Acts 5:12). Is this strange? Certainly not. The Lord loved His friends, the saints, and said, of His miracles, "You will do these things, and even greater than these" (that's paraphrasing, of course).

So I wonder: Was it not veneration when the faithful brought their sick and ailing out to the streets, so the blessed Apostle St. Peter's shadow can pass over them? And was it not veneration that motivated the faithful to take the handkerchiefs that the blessed Apostle St. Paul used to wipe his brow, and place them on the sick? Truly, this is a witness, in the Holy Scriptures, of veneration not only to saints, but even to the relics of the saints. The saint of the Lord is surrounded with the grace of God. Even so, things that come into contact with this saint, this friend of God, exudes that same grace. Surely, no Bible-believing Christian will deny that "the woman with the issue of blood" was healed just by touching the Lord's robes.

Surely it is fitting that these beacons of sanctity, much like saints of all the centuries, even to the few of our eschatological times, have been "esteemed highly by the people" (Acts 5:13).

Monday, May 08, 2006

 

He Must Increase, and I Must Decrease

"And they came to John and said to him, "Rabbi, He who was with you beyond the Jordan, to Whom you have testified--behold, He is baptizing, and all are coming to Him". John answered and said, "A man can receive nothing unless it has been given to him from heaven. You yourselves bear me witness, that I said, 'I am not the Christ", but 'I have been sent before Him'. He who has the bride is the Bridegroom, but the friend of the Bridegroom, who stand and hears Him, rejoices greatly because of the Bridegroom's voice. Therefore this joy of mine is fulfilled. HE MUST INCREASE, BUT I MUST DECREASE. He Who comes from above is above all; he who is of earth is earthly and speaks of the earth. He Who comes from heaven is above all. And what He has seen and heard, that He testifies, and no one receives His testimony. He who has received His testimony has certified that God is true" (St. John 3:26-33).

The disciples of St. John the Baptist and Forerunner of our Lord were perplexed. "Rabbi", they said, "how can this man who was with you have all the men going to him". They were upset that this Man was taking away disciples from their teacher's side. St. John Chrysostom comments on this scripture, that St. John the Baptist seeks to illustrate to his disciples "that they warred against none other than God Himself, when they warred against Christ" (Homily XXIX on John 3). But in his correction of his disciples, there is also consolation, because St. John shows them that they have not been outdone by an earthly man who "speaks of the earth". This Man, Who has outdone their rabbi, is what there rabbi consistently stated he was not: "I am not the Christ", he told them over and over again. Surely, however, when he saw Him approaching, he stated aloud, "Behold the Lamb of God, that takes away the sins of the world". St. John tells them Who Christ is--"He Who comes from heaven is above all". Amen.

Christ must increase, and we must decrease. This is a great lesson that the blessed St. John the Prophet, Baptist and Forerunner of the Lord makes clear to us. The Lord Jesus Christ's Power, as the Word of God, as True God of True God, is revealed in His willing self-abasement. It is revealed in His willing Incarnation. The Lord of all, Creator, Reedemer, High Priest and Judge, is revealed to humanity in His own becoming Man. Truly, this is why the Lord calls great, Him that can be last.

It is not by accident that when the Apostles asked Him who should be first, the Lord said, "He is first who makes himself last, and servant of all". There must come to the heart of every ardent seeker of Christ, that same KENOSIS, that same SELF-ABASEMENT which the Lord Himself showed. We must not seek titles, we must not seek adulation. We must not seek recognition, but must seek to put ourselves last--because it is the humble heart that the Lord will not despise, and the humble heart that He will exalt.

This is why the blessed St. John says, "He must increase, and I must decrease". Even in our very selves, it is Christ who must increase, and our own egos that must decrease. Does Christ not want a certain thing in our lives? Let us not want it either! The Lord is the Giver of Life, if He wills that we must not do something, let us not be adverse, but let us accept it. So that it is no longer us who live, but Christ Who lives in us, as St. Paul states. So that we may be decreased, and the Lord be increased. So that Christ will be etched onto us.

Have mercy and patience with us, Lord, for we are blind to your benevolence and love, and though knowing the right, do not know how to do it. Amen.

Sunday, April 30, 2006

 

Continuing in Orthodoxy--Sound Doctrine

The Church is not a free-for-all. It is not a smorgasbord, where one decides what they will adhere, and what they will not. No, no member of the Church is free to say, "this doesn't suit me", or "I don't agree with this, so I'll head off and start my own church" which will seek to undermine what the community of the faithful have always taught. The faith is "once delivered to the saints", and it is "ONE FAITH" (Ephesians 4:4).

This is precisely why we read during the Bright Tuesday reading:

"Then Peter said to them, 'Repent, and let every one of you be baptized in the name of Jesus Christ for the remission of sins; and you shall receivethe gift of the Holy Spirit. For the promise is to you and to your children, and to all who are afar off, as many as the Lord our God will call.' And with many other words he testifiedand exhorted them, saying, 'Be saved from this perverse generation'. Then those who gladly received his word were baptized; and that day about three thousand souls were added to them. And they continued steadfastly in the apostles' doctrine and fellowship, in the breaking of bread, and in prayers." (The Acts of the Apostles, 2:38-42)

If the Apostles, who have been expounded the Holy Scriptures from the Lord Himself (see St. Luke 24:27), then they have sound teaching, and sound doctrine. If the Lord instructed them for forty days concerning all that has anything to do with His holy Church (see The Acts of the Apostles, 1:3), then we, as Christians must STEADFASTLY ascribe to those things, and no, we are NOT free as Christians, to say "I like this thing, but I don't like this thing, so I'm scrapping it."

And yes, the Apostles, as the hierarchy of the Holy Church of Christ, DID have that authority to say, "THIS IS WHAT CHRISTIANS BELIEVE". In fact, when there was controversy with the faithful Jews over whether the Gentile converts had to be "of the circumcision", it was the Holy Church that came together collegially, guided by the Holy Spirit, and decreed that one need not be circumcised to follow and believe in Christ. And the faithful were not free to say "Who are the Apostles?", or that these were just "the traditions of men". No! The Lord Jesus Christ told them, that whoever receives you, receives Me, and whoever receives Me, receives Him Who sent Me. This is precisely why we read in the Holy Scriptures that the Apostles "went through the cities, they delivered to them the decrees TO KEEP, which were determined by the apostles and elders at Jerusalem" (The Acts of the Apostles, 16:4). The Greek word used is not "decrees" but dogmata. The Holy Church preserves her teachings, and they are not up to negotiation. It is the faith, the One Faith, and once delivered, that the conscientious soul seeks to uphold, and not a faith of the ego, where one decides, like a self proclaimed infallible speaker of Christianity, what the faith is and what it is not. From the historic roots of Scripture and antiquity, this is a sentiment altogether alien to historic Christianity.

In his "Letter to the Smyrneans", St. Ignatius, bishop of Antioch, writes:
"You should all follow the bishop as Jesus Christ did the Father. Follow too the presbytery (priesthood), as you would the apostles; and respect the deacons as you would God's law. Nobody must do anything that has to do with the Church without the bishop's approval. You should regard that Eucharist as valid which is celebrated by the bishop or someone he authorizes. Where the bishop is present, there let the congregation gather, just as where Jesus Christ is, there is the Church. Without the bishop's supervision no baptisms or love feasts are permitted...He who pays the bishop honour has been honoured by God. But he who acts without the bishop's knowledge is in the devil's service". (To the Smyrneans)

I'm reminded of an excellent lecture I heard by lecturer/author Frank Schaeffer. To paraphrase, Schaeffer said, "If salvation is a race to be run, as St. Paul exhorts the faithful, if it is not a once and done thing, but a constant moving towards...If we are told to perfect ourselves in holiness in the fear of God...then HOW we travel that path really matters. If the path matters, we have to have a hierarchy to defend that holy path, and keep that one faith pristine and unscathed. If therefore we do not have honour and due reverence for the bishop, who wears the priesthood of the Lord, and is a hierarch of His holy Church, we are going to have chaos and lose the faith". Let us cast off this pride and egocentrism in ourselves and seek to follow that ancient path, that straight and narrow one, that the blessed saints have travelled down. With their heavenly intercessions, let us struggle as best as we can, crawling, dragging, grappling with the misanthrope demons, hoping on the Lord, toward salvation. Amen.

Sunday, April 23, 2006

 

St. John Chrysostom's Paschal Sermon

Christ is Risen! He is Risen indeed! If any man is a devout lover of God, let him enjoy this fair and radiant triumphal feast. If any man is a wise servant, let him rejoicing enter into the joy of the Lord. If any has laboured long in fasting, let him now receive his recompense. If any has wrought from the first hour, let him today receive his just reward. If any has come at the third hour, let him have no misgivings; because he will in no wise be deprived thereof. If any has delayed until the ninth hour, let him draw near, fearing nothing. If any has tarried even until the eleventh hour, let him also, be not alarmed at his tardiness; for the Lord, Who is jealous of his honour, will accept the last even as the first; He gives rest to him who comes at the eleventh hour, even as to him who has wrought from the first hour. And He shows mercy on the last, and cares for the first...And He both accepts the deeds, and welcomes the intention, and honours the acts and praises the offering.

Wherefore, enter you all into the joy of your Lord! And receive your reward...You rich and poor together, hold high festival. You sober and you heedless, honour the day. Rejoice today, both you who have fasted and you who have disregarded the fast. The table is full-laden; feast you all sumptuously. The calf is fatted; let no one go away hungry. All of you, enjoy the feast of faith: Receive all the riches of loving-kindness. Let no one bewail his poverty, for the universal kingdom has been revealed. Let no one weep for his iniquities, for pardon has shone forth from the grave. Let no one fear death, for the Saviour's death has set us free. He who was held prisoner of it, has annihilated it. By descending into Hell, he has made Hell captive. He angered it when it tasted of His flesh. And Isaiah, foretelling this, did cry: Hell, said he, was angered, when it encountered You in the lower regions. It was angered for it was abolished. It was angered, for it was mocked...It was angered, for it was overthrown. It was angered, for it was fettered into chains. It took a body, and met God face to face. It took earth, and encountered Heaven. It took that which was seen, and fell upon the unseen. Oh Death! Where is your sting? O Hell, where is your victory?

CHRIST IS RISEN, and you are overthrown! CHRIST IS RISEN, and the Angels rejoice! CHRIST IS RISEN, and the demons are fallen! CHRIST IS RISEN, and life reigns! CHRIST IS RISEN, and not one dead remains in the grave! For Christ, being risen from the dead, has become the first-fruits of those who have fallen asleep. To Him be glory and dominion unto the ages of ages. AMEN.

[ A blessed Pascha to all! Christ is Risen! Truly He is Risen! Christos Anesti! Alithos Anesti! Christos Voskrese! Voistinu Voskrese!]

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