The Good Shepherd

Today the Orthodox Church commemorates St. Gregory Palamas on the Second Sunday of Lent.  We read of the Good Shepherd in tenth chapter of St. John’s gospel which is the second assigned gospel for this Sunday.  In this chapter Christ, the Good Shepherd, contrasts himself to the “hireling.”  The hireling is not a shepherd.  The sheep are not his own, and upon seeing the wolf he abandons the sheep and flees.  The wolf attacks and scatters the sheep (John 10: 12).  The cowardly action of the hireling allows the entrance of the enemy — and is like the action of the Serpent in the Garden.  Our first Parents were thus attacked and were deceived.  Their rebellion led to their own scattering, and they and all of creation were lost to death, darkness, sin, and alienation.  Christ lays out who he is.  He is the Good Shepherd who gathers together into life, light, and relationship all that was lost and scattered into death, darkness, sin, and alienation:

The thief comes only to steal and kill and destroy; I came that they may have life, and have it abundantly.  I am the Good Shepherd.  The Good Shepherd lays down his life for the sheep…I am the Good Shepherd; I know my own and my own know me, as the Father knows me and I know the Father; and I lay down my life for the sheep (John 10: 10 -11, 14 – 15).

Christ continues to gather his sheep into his fold throughout the centuries into the Church.  Here, he continues to provide for his flock and care for his sheep.

St. Gregory Palamas

Gregory Palamas, Archbishop of Thessalonica, was a saint and a good shepherd to the flock of Christ.  He began his priestly ministry in 1326 in Thessalonica.  Then, in 1331 he returned to Mt. Athos and began to write theological works, thus continuing his pastoral care in this new manner.

Enter a hireling, a certain Barlaam of Calabria.  He criticized many of the monastic practices of the day along with some established, orthodox teachings of the Church.  He argued with St. Gregory about these matters and how we of Christian faith encounter and experience God.  He turned the argument to the subject of light that emanated from Christ on Mt. Tabor:  was that light truly from his own divinity, or was it a created intermediary (thus, reeking of Arianism).  Barlaam argued that no human can experience anything of God, but only something secondary and not of God himself.

St. Gregory taught the truth of the Church.  He stated that though humans cannot know of God’s essence, we can know God by his energies, which we directly are able to encounter and engage.  To understand the difference between essence and energies, we have the analogy of the sun and its rays of light.  We cannot touch the sun, but we can experience its life giving, warming and invigorating light.  Thus, God’s energies are like the sun’s rays of light and energy.  Then, accepting St. Gregory’s teaching in 1341, the Council of Constantinople gave this authoritative statement:

…God, unapproachable in his essence, reveals himself through his energies, which are directed toward the world and are able to be perceived, like the light of Tabor, but are neither material or created.

Today our world is filled with Barlaams (and even worse sorts).  They are false teachers, false prophets, hirelings and wolves.  Their voices, podcasts, videos, programmings, and writings are all around us.  Their intent is to further puff up their egos by gathering together their own flocks of deceived sheep.  But, ultimately, this results in attacks on, and the scattering of these abused flocks.

In St. John’s gospel we read Jesus’ words:

When he [the Good Shepherd] has brought out all his own, he goes before them, and the sheep follow him, for they know his voice.  A stranger they will not follow, but they will flee from him, for they do not know the voice of strangers (John 10: 4 – 5).

Lex orandi, lex credendi — this is a Latin phrase meaning “what is prayed is what is believed.”  We who abide in the Church hear and read the Scriptures.  We encounter the words of the Divine Liturgy and the words of the services of Vespers, Matins, and the Hours.  We know the Nicene Creed and recite it from memory.  We know the hymns that teach us by their declarative words of praise and worship of God, and they also provide the teachings of the true faith.  We read the teachings of the Fathers who teach the Orthodox faith.  By these we know the truth of the Orthodox Church and know the voice of our Lord Jesus Christ.  

Sensus Fidei, or the “the Sense of the Faithful” is of great value and is given to us by all the above sources of our faith.  (We are to live out the truths of our faith in our daily lives.) We have this admonition from the epistle assigned for this Sunday coming from St. Paul’s Letter to the Hebrews:

Therefore, we must pay closer attention to what we have heard, lest we drift away from it.  For if the message declared by angels was valid and every transgression or disobedience received a just retribution, how shall we escape if we neglect such a great salvation?  It is declared at first by the Lord, and it was attested to us by those who heard him, while God also bore witness by signs and wonders and various miracles and by gifts of the Holy Spirit distributed according to his will (Hebrews 2: 1 – 4).

To encourage us further, we have this prayer from the First Hour as assigned during this season of Lent.  It is also appropriate since next Sunday is the Sunday of the Cross.  Christ’s holy cross also provides us with its protection:

Hasten to our aid, lest we be enslaved to the enemy which blasphemes You and threatens us, O Christ our God, and overcome by Your Cross those who war against us, that they may know the might of the Orthodox Faith; through the intercessions of the Theotokos, O You who alone loves mankind.

Thus, let us, in these confusing and troubling days, hold firm to the teachings of Christ as encounter in his One, Holy, Catholic, and Apostolic Church!

The following links is a sermon which corresponds to this posting:

In Christ,

Fr. Irenaeus