Annually in the Orthodox Church there are commemorations of the Seven Ecumenical Councils. There were seven of them. This Sunday, July 14, 2019, I served as a substitute priest at St. Sophia Greek Orthodox Church in Bellingham, Washington for Fr. Michael Tervo. The Greek Orthodox Church focused on the Fourth Council — the Council of Chalcedon — and its Definition of Chalcedon, as penned by Pope Leo the Great. The key statement of this Council involved the hypostatic union — that Jesus Christ is fully God and fully human. These two natures (divine and human) exist in the one Person of Jesus Christ in an indissoluble union. These two natures, while in union, are, at the same time, never in confusion. This definition is in response to the false teaching of Nestorius. This heretical bishop essentially made Jesus into two separate persons: one divine and one human. There could be no union of the two natures in his mind. Nestorius tried to give the Church a Christ with a multiple personality disorder. His view was rightly rejected and judged as heresy. Jesus is NOT an “either-or,” he is a “both-this-and-that.”
The gospel reading put forward by the Greek Archdiocese comes from Mt 5:14 – 19. Verse 14 grabbed my attention which quotes Jesus: “You are the light of the world…” Elsewhere, in St. John’s gospel, Jesus declares, “I am the light of the world” (Jn 8: 12). Both statements from the Scriptures are true. It is not an either-or proposition, it is “both-this-and-that.”
The third Sunday of Lent is known as the Sunday of the Cross. Its gospel reading comes from Mark 8:34 – 9:1. Mark 8:34 reads, “And after receiving the crowd together with his disciples he said to them, ‘If someone wills to follow after me, let him deny himself, take up his cross and follow me.’”
We do not do this alone, our Lord always leads us in the way. A few verses earlier he states, “…it is necessary for the Son of Man to suffer much, and be rejected by the elders, chief priests and scribes and to be killed and after three days to rise again (8:31).” Following Jesus’ words, Peter rebukes him, then Jesus rebukes Peter: “Get behind me Satan…” Peter had the way of world in mind: SELF PRESERVATION.
Christian salvation is far more than a juridical proclamation of innocence: it is relational. Our salvation is an ontological union with the Jesus Christ, the second Person of the Holy Trinity. This union with Christ imparts to us our destiny in Christ. St. Paul writes of our union in Christ:
Therefore, if you were raised together with Christ, seek the things above, where Christ is sitting at the right hand of God. Think of the things above, not upon the things on earth. For you died [together with Christ] and your life has been hidden together with Christ in God. Whenever Christ, who is your life, might be revealed, then also you will be revealed together with him in glory (Col 3: 1 – 4).
Our lives are to correspond to this reality, and we are to “Put to death, therefore, the ‘earthly’ aspects of your life: immorality, impurity, passion, evil desire, and covetousness, which is idolatry” (Col 3:5). This list is not limited to these sins — St. Paul expects us to get the idea.
We are to have an additional response which requires positive action. As we are to eliminate corrupting habits, we also are to acquire new habits, new virtues:
Therefore, clothe yourselves, as the elect of God holy and beloved, compassion, kindness, lowliness, meekness, patience, forbearing one another and, if one has a complaint against another, forgiving each other; as the Lord has forgiven you, so you also must forgive. And over all these put on love, which binds everything together in perfection. And let the peace of Christ rule in your hearts to which you were called in one body. And become thankful (Col 3: 12 – 15).
St. Peter had a life changing encounter with Christ one day along the Sea of Gennesaret. Christ was teaching the crowd a short distance off the shore in St. Peter’s boat. After he concludes his teaching, he instructs St. Peter to put out in the water and drop his nets. St. Peter reluctantly agrees. The result was an incredible, miraculous catch of fish. His response to Jesus was an emphatic: “Depart from me, Lord, for I am a sinful man” (Luke 5: 8). Jesus does not leave. He remains in the sinner’s presence and says to him, “Fear not! From now on you will be catching men” (Luke 5: 10).
St. Peter’s response should be the response of all of us. We are to acknowledge our sinfulness in the understanding of the holiness of God Incarnate — Jesus of Nazareth. Sin cannot exist in the presence of an all holy God. Darkness can have no fellowship with light. Psalm 5 informs us of this truth. Its words speak to St. Peter’s self understanding at the moment he encountered the presence of holiness, “For you are not a god who delights in wickedness; evil may not sojourn with you” (Psalm 5: 4). But, we have Jesus’ words: “Fear not!” For Christ did not come into the world to judge it, but to save it. We find this famous verse in St. John’s gospel: “For thus God loved the world, that he gave his only-begotten Son, in order that everyone who believes in him might not perish, but have eternal life” (John3: 16).
This third part of my commentary on St. John chapter six may seem out of sequence — I should be writing about Christ’s “Bread of Life Discourse” which begins with St. John 6:25. However, I have put things in this order to counter an objection made by evangelicals and others who employ a single verse in their attempt to negate Christ’s own teaching about the Eucharist — that his Body and Blood are real food and drink to be consumed for eternal life and union that is to exist with him and the believer. The verse which they employ is St. John 6: 63, “It is the Spirit which brings life, the flesh counts for nothing: the words which I have spoken to you are spirit and are life.” This verse is used by evangelicals, and other Protestants, to state that Jesus did not mean what he said, he was just speaking symbolically, and we do not really consume his Body and Blood in the Eucharist. It is a very weak argument, but much confidence is falsely placed in its usage. Examination of the context of this verse with the whole of St. John’s gospel reveals the exact opposite: those who reject this teaching have only carnal understanding and cannot understand the ways of the spiritual life of faith in Christ.
This year, per the calendar, the seventh Sunday after Pentecost was quite full in terms of its readings. The Church commemorated the Fathers of the first six Ecumenical Councils, and the Great Prince Vladimir of Kiev, Equal to the Apostles. Great Vespers put forth six Old Testament readings. There were three epistle and three gospel readings set for the Divine Liturgy. I did not count all the scriptural verses read, but St. Paul’s epistle to the Romans chapter nine, verses 1 – 7 held my attention, especially Romans 9: 7, “Welcome one another, just as Christ welcomed you unto the glory of God.” This verse is eucharistic at its core.
This Sunday’s gospel reading, the sixth Sunday after Pentecost, comes from St. Matthew who records the healing of a paralytic. The paralytic was brought by friends before Christ on his pallet to be healed. Their faith brought them to Jesus: “And Jesus, observing their faith said to the paralytic, ‘Take courage child, your sins are forgiven’” (Mt 9: 2).
The gospel text two weeks prior to this Sunday put forward the the account of Jesus’ healing of the centurion’s paralyzed and suffering servant (Mt 8: 5 – 13). In this reading, Jesus observed the remarkable faith of the gentile centurion. In both cases Jesus observed faith, and his observation led to his healing action.
There are often obstacles to the exercise of faith. The centurion had no obstacle placed before him. His access was immediate. The paralytic and his companions had a different situation. Jesus statement, “your sins are forgiven”, is met with the Jewish scribes objection: “This is blasphemy!” The scribes of the Law tried to shut things down by their supposed authority. However, it is Jesus who has true authority! He then speaks to the scribes: “In order that you might know that the Son of Man has authority on earth to forgive sins, “Get up! Take up your pallet and go to your own home” (Mt 9: 6).
The paralytic and his companions had faith. By that faith which Christ observed, he acted to bring healing without any regard to the scribes’ powerless barrier which they put up to stop our Lord.
We too have our own infirmities and paralyses which are primarily spiritual. We approach Christ with our faith no matter how weak or feeble our faith may seem to us.
The account of the healing of the centurion’s servant as recording in St. Matthew’s gospel (Mt 8: 5 – 13) is a demonstration of great faith by the gentile Roman. The exchange between Jesus and the centurion occurred as Jesus was entering Capernaum: “A centurion approached him urging him to heal his servant saying, ‘Lord, my servant has been placed in my house paralyzed and is suffering greatly’” (MT 8: 6). Jesus agrees to come to heal the servant. However, the centurion objects and gives his famous response: “Lord, I am not worthy that you should come under the roof of my house, but only say the word and my servant will be healed” (MT 8: 8). Our Lord marveled at this and gives his commentary: “Truly, truly I say to you in no one in Israel have I found such faith!” (Mt 8: 10).
In this gospel passage we have an account of a great demonstration of faith manifested before Christ, his disciples, and the crowd that followed along that day. Such great demonstrations of faith are rare. In fact, Jesus also marveled at lack of faith (Mk 6: 6). Therefore, we dare not have fantasies that we will be able to make such a great demonstration of our personal faith, and have such an outcome as did the centurion. Such an opportunity may come our way, but would we able to respond in a way that would please our Lord? Honestly, we may fail.
As stated in Part One of this series of postings on the sixth chapter of St. John’s gospel, the entire chapter is to be taken as a whole — every verse relates to all other verses. Looking at the entirety of the chapter, it represents St. John’s teaching about the Eucharist. Hence, the second miracle found in this chapter is part of the whole, and gives meaning to Christ’s words found later in it. This second miracle found in chapter six is St. John’s account of Jesus’ walking on the water of the Sea of Galilee.
Both St. Matthew and St. Mark record the miracle of Jesus walking on the water sequentially following the miracle of the Feeding of the Five Thousand. (However, St. Luke does not follow their chronology.) In his account St. John omits some details found in, for example, St. Mark’s account (Mk 6: 45 -52), but adds others not included in the other gospel recordings. However, the act of Jesus’ walking on water is meant to have common interpretation.
As an introduction, the entirety of the sixth chapter of St. John’s gospel is to be taken as a whole. It is not to be fragmented into isolated parts that have no connection with one another. This can be stated because an inclusio holds the chapter together: the Greek phrase meta tauta (“after these things”) begins the chapter, and the same phrase begins chapter seven of this gospel. This phrase brackets the chapter together. Taken all as one, St. John’s sixth chapter is his teaching about the Eucharist.
The first event recorded by St. John in the sixth chapter is the miracle of the Feeding of the Five Thousand as recorded in verses 1 —15. This miracle is recorded in all four gospels. However, St. John interprets it, and presents it, differently than the accounts found in the three synoptic gospels. He sees this miracle as a New Testament type of the Eucharist.
St. Gregory was born in Constantinople in the year 1296. He was born to an aristocratic family. His father was in service to Emperor Andronicus II Paleologos. His father died while Gregory was relatively young, and is then raised by the Emperor. His intelligence and abilities were recognized, and he received the finest education available to him. Though the Emperor hoped Gregory would serve his government, the young man desired to serve Christ instead. His monastic life began when he was about 20 years old on Mt. Athos at the monastery of Vatopedi.
His monastic disciplines grew at various monasteries under a variety of teachers, as did his spirit in Christ. Then, in 1326, he and other brothers escaped Turkish invasion and fled to Thessalonica where he was ordained a priest. After some time, he gathered together a small community near the city. In 1331 he returned to Mt Athos and began to write theological works (he was in his mid-thirties). During this decade all changed for Gregory.
Lent is coming! In preparation for it, the Orthodox Church gradually enters into the season (we don’t dive directly into the deep end!). We prepare with three Sundays whose themes ready our hearts and minds for Lent. The Church’s first pre-Lenten Sunday examines Jesus’ parable about the Publican (or tax collector) and the Pharisee. The gospel text comes from St. Luke 18: 9 – 14:
Now he spoke this parable towards those who consider themselves to be righteous and despise others. “Two men went up to the Temple to pray, one a Pharisee, and the other a tax collector. The Pharisee stood and prayed to himself, ‘O God, I thank you that I am not like the rest of men, extortioners, unjust, adulterers, or like this tax collector. I fast two times a week, and I tithe from all that I acquire.’ But the tax collector stood afar. He did not wish to lift his eyes up to heaven, but he beat his chest saying, ‘Have mercy on me a sinner!’ I say to you, this man went down to his home having been justified rather than the other one, because every one who exalts himself will be humbled, but he who humbles himself will be exalted!”
January 6 marks the Feast of Theophany for the Orthodox Church. Theophany commemorates Jesus’ baptism in the Jordan River by St. John the Baptist. The Third Antiphon of the feast proclaims the day’s theology:
When Thou, O Lord, wast baptized in the Jordan, the worship of the Trinity was made manifest! For the voice of the Father bare witness to Thee, and called Thee his beloved Son! And the Spirit, in the form of a dove, confirmed the truthfulness of his word. O Christ our God, who hast revealed Thyself and hast enlightened the world, glory to Thee.
The following day focuses on the holy Prophet, Forerunner, and Baptist John. Such a day is called a Synaxis — the Church gathers together to commemorate the the feast’s “supporting actor(s). In his gospel, St. Mark writes of St. John’s purpose and ministry:
Behold, I will send my messenger before your face, who shall prepare your way: a voice crying in the wilderness, “Make ready the way of the Lord, make straight his paths.” John was baptizing in the wilderness and proclaiming a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins (Mark: 1 – 4).
Within the salvific model of Christus Victor there is the wonderful aspect of recapitulation. I have written several postings about Recapitulation and refer to it frequently. We have a New Testament declaration of this subject. It is found in St. Paul’s epistle to the Ephesians:
Having declared to us the mystery of his will, according to his good pleasure which he intended for him [Christ], for the purpose of the fulness of time: to gather together all things in Christ, those things in the heavens, and those things on earth (Eph 1: 9 – 10).
St. Paul is declaring that all that was lost and scattered into the exile of sin, death, darkness, and alienation by Adam’s disobedience and capitulation has been gathered together into relationship, light, life, and holiness in Christ. All that is of creation — all that is imaginable — from the smallest subatomic particle to the most bizarre, remote and distant extraterrestrial thing is gathered together, and contained within, the God-man, Jesus Christ: this is Recapitulation. St. Paul writes again of Recapitulation in his epistle to the Colossians:
He is before all things, and in him [Christ] all things stand in proper order…Because in him [Christ] all the fulness [pan to pleroma] was pleased to dwell. And through him to reconcile all things to him, making peace through the blood of his cross, whether those things upon the earth, or those things in the heavens (Col 1: 17, 19 – 20).
November 5, 2017 marks the 22nd Sunday after Pentecost. This Sunday I have the blessing and joy to serve Christ the Savior Orthodox Church in Spokane, Washington. This wonderful parish is pastored by Fr. Andrew Welzig, who was away to California to attend a wedding. The epistle reading comes from Galatians 6: 11 – 18. I emphasize two verses,
May it not be for me to boast except in the cross of our Lord Jesus Christ through which the world was crucified to me and I to the world. For neither is circumcision anything, nor is uncircumsion, but only a new creation (Gal 6: 14 – 15).
St. Paul is dead to the world system, and the world system is dead to him. He knows of a new reality, a new existence, and he knows of a new creation. He knows of a new life of which is has life — life in Christ, and Christ alive in him. We read from Galatians 2: 20, “I was co-crucified with Christ: I no longer live, but Christ lives in me.” St. Paul’s natural life is no more. He is a new man, a new creature, who now is alive to Christ who imparts his life to him, and exists within him.
“The Only Living Boy in New York” is my favorite song by Simon and Garfunkel. It was one of their final songs as a duo being recorded in late 1969. Its origin comes from Art Garfunkel’s departure from New York to Mexico to film “Catch 22” (“Tom, get your plane ride on time / I know your part’ll go fine / Fly down to Mexico…”). It is a great acoustic guitar song, with wonderful melody and lush vocals. The song’s bridge in its final presentation is fantastic fun to play, but it’s the lyrics of the bridge that win my attention:
“Half of the time we’re gone / But we don’t know where / And we don’t know where.”
The Tower of London. It has quite a name. It is quite a place. From it you see the London Bridge and the Thames and a great deal of modern, bustling London. Today it is a UNESCO World Heritage Site and a tourist destination. However, its name for most denotes imprisonment, pain, and death. That was not its initial purpose. It was built to show the wealth and power of William the Conquerer. In actuality, few met their deaths within its walls, but it did serve as a prison and a very dark place for many. Among those imprisoned and tortured in the Tower was St. Henry Walpole.