Friday, November 24, 2017

If a man has a hundred sheep, and one of them goes astray, does he not leave the ninety-nine and go to the mountains to seek the one that is straying?


 "Take heed that you do not despise one of these little ones, for I say to you that in heaven their angels always see the face of My Father who is in heaven.  For the Son of Man has come to save that which was lost.

"What do you think?  If a man has a hundred sheep, and one of them goes astray, does he not leave the ninety-nine and go to the mountains to seek the one that is straying?  And if he should find it, assuredly, I say to you, he rejoices more over that sheep than over the ninety-nine that did not go astray.  Even so it is not the will of your Father who is in heaven that one of these little ones should perish.

"Moreover if your brother sins against you, go and tell him his fault between you and him alone.  If he hears you, you have gained your brother.  But if he will not hear, take with you one or two more, that 'by the mouth of two or three witnesses every word may be established.'  And if he refuses to hear them, tell it to the church.  But if he refuses even to hear the church, let him be to you like a heathen and a tax collector.  Assuredly, I say to you, whatever you bind on earth will be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth will be loosed in heaven.  Again I say to you that if two of you agree on earth concerning anything that they ask, it will be done for them by My Father in heaven.  For where two or three are gathered together in My name, I am there in the midst of them."

- Matthew 18:10-20

Yesterday we read that, after Jesus' second warning that He will suffer, be killed, and rise on the third day, the disciples came to Jesus, saying, "Who then is the greatest in the kingdom of heaven?"  Then Jesus called a little child to Him, set him in the midst of them, and said, "Assuredly, I say to you, unless you are converted and become as little children, you will by no means enter the kingdom of heaven.  Therefore whoever humbles himself as this little child is the greatest in the kingdom of heaven.  Whoever receives one little child like this in My name receives Me.  Whoever causes one of these little ones who believe in Me to sin, it would be better for him if a millstone were hung around his neck, and he were drowned in the depth of the sea.  Woe to the world because of offenses!  For offenses must come, but woe to that man by whom the offense comes!  If your hand or foot causes you to sin, cut it off and cast it from you.  It is better for you to enter into life lame or maimed, rather than having two hands or tow feet, to be cast into the everlasting fire.  And if your eye causes you to sin, pluck it out and cast it from you.  It is better for you to enter into life with one eye, rather than having two eyes, to be cast into hell fire."

 "Take heed that you do not despise one of these little ones, for I say to you that in heaven their angels always see the face of My Father who is in heaven.  for the Son of Man has come to save that which was lost."  Jesus continues speaking of the little ones, the ones who are "least" in the Church, the humble and dependent.  Regarding their angels, St John Chrysostom teaches that not only the saints, but all people have guardian angels.  But the angels of the humble have greater boldness and greater honor before the face of God, because of the humility of the person they guard.  My study bible tells us that it is not the nature of God but rather the weakness of human beings that requires the angels' service.

"What do you think?  If a man has a hundred sheep, and one of them goes astray, does he not leave the ninety-nine and go to the mountains to seek the one that is straying?  And if he should find it, assuredly, I say to you, he rejoices more over that sheep than over the ninety-nine that did not go astray.  Even so it is not the will of your Father who is in heaven that one of these little ones should perish."   My study bible says that unlike earthly shepherds, Christ sees such value in one sheep that He will leave the others at risk to save it.  (See also Zechariah 11:15-17, referring to false leadership, in which it is a worthless shepherd who leaves the flock and does not seek the strays.)  The ninety-nine sheep represent the righteous who remain faithful to God (Luke 15:7).   According to certain patristic interpretations, this is also an image of the Incarnation, in which the ninety-nine represent the angels in heaven.  Christ descended from heaven to pursue the one sheep -- humankind -- who had fallen into corruption on earth.

"Moreover if your brother sins against you, go and tell him his fault between you and him alone.  If he hears you, you have gained your brother.  But if he will not hear, take with you one or two more, that 'by the mouth of two or three witnesses every word may be established.'  And if he refuses to hear them, tell it to the church.  But if he refuses even to hear the church, let him be to you like a heathen and a tax collector."  The parable about "lost sheep"  brings up the problem of those who sin in the Church.  Jesus gives a formula for discipline within the Church, based on mutual correction, and expanding in three stages.  Sin and correction are to remain private unless the offender refuses to repent, my study bible notes.  All correction must be done with great care and with humility.  The highest concern is, in fact, the salvation of the offender -- thus, with the one who may be "lost" or astray (see 1 Corinthians 5:5, Galatians 6:1).  However, correction must take place so that the sin does not spread to others as well.

"Assuredly, I say to you, whatever you bind on earth will be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth will be loosed in heaven.  Again I say to you that if two of you agree on earth concerning anything that they ask, it will be done for them by My Father in heaven.  For where two or three are gathered together in My name, I am there in the midst of them."   The authority to both bind and loose sins is given to the apostles and transmitted to the bishops and presbyters they ordained, according to my study bible.  This authority is given for the sake of the salvation of the sinner.   St. John Chrysostom comments that, "seeing that he is not only cast out of the Church, but that the bond of his sin will remain in Heaven, he may turn and become gentle."

The parable of the Good Shepherd who leaves the ninety-nine to seek the one straying sheep may have struck ancient ears as rather odd.  After all, a shepherd of the time wouldn't necessarily leave the majority of his flock to seek out one, and risk losing them all.  But this isn't a story about sheep; it's a story about the love of Christ and the type of leadership He wants from His disciples.  They should go to the "ends of the earth" to find the strays and the lost who belong to the Master, and bring them together in one flock.  And this is, of course, what the Apostles will do after Pentecost.  We should remember that today's reading is given in the context of preparing the disciples for their leadership in the Church that is to come.  They've just received the second warning from Christ about what is to come:  that He will die on the Cross, and after three days He will be risen.  This news has left them dejected, but also no doubt curious to know their place in what they believe is the Kingdom to come.  His first teaching (in yesterday's reading, above) was about the use of power in His Church.  They are most importantly to care for the "little ones," that is, those who are like little children in the Church, the humble who will be in their care.  Into that context comes the story of the shepherd who leaves ninety-nine sheep to go after the one that's lost.  No effort should be spared in caring for "the least of these."  Christ's parable gives us a guarantee of the importance of personal attention.  It teaches us that each one is sacred and unique and special to the Father.  Perhaps Jesus makes His most important statement about the whole essence of His Incarnational mission when He says, "For the Son of Man has come to save that which was lost."  It's an indication of how beloved each person is by God, our Creator.  It's not a call to selfishness or self-centeredness on our part.  It's rather a statement about the importance of returning the sheep to where they belong, to the place that is truly home, where they may dwell in that love.  It's about recalling the sheep to their true natures, and finding the place where identity becomes complete.  That is really the mission of the Church, to seek and find those who've been lost to this truth, this essence about ourselves as persons.  So strong is the desire to find the "lost sheep" that Jesus strongly warns the disciples that all care and all effort must be made to avoid their alienation, in the ways that they are to provide leadership and in seeking out those who've been lost.  It remains the essence of what it is to belong to Christ, and to find our true image and identity in Him.  Even in teaching about discipline within the Church, all care is taken to protect privacy and proper means of correction for each one.   At the Last Supper, Jesus will give one commandment that is both new and final:  "Love one another as I have loved you" (John 13:34, 15:12).  In these teachings about the lost sheep, Jesus really teaches us about the love of God, a love so great as to seek redemption for each one.  Let us remember His command and seek to follow His example.




Thursday, November 23, 2017

Whoever humbles himself as this little child is the greatest in the kingdom of heaven


 At that time the disciples came to Jesus, saying, "Who then is the greatest in the kingdom of heaven?"  Then Jesus called a little child to Him, set him in the midst of them, and said, "Assuredly, I say to you, unless you are converted and become as little children, you will by no means enter the kingdom of heaven.  Therefore whoever humbles himself as this little child is the greatest in the kingdom of heaven.  Whoever receives one little child like this in My name receives Me.

"Whoever causes one of these little ones who believe in Me to sin, it would be better for him if a millstone were hung around his neck, and he were drowned in the depth of the sea.  Woe to the world because of offenses!  For offenses must come, but woe to that man by whom the offense comes!

"If your hand or foot causes you to sin, cut it off and cast it from you.  It is better for you to enter into life lame or maimed, rather than having two hands or tow feet, to be cast into the everlasting fire.  And if your eye causes you to sin, pluck it out and cast it from you.  It is better for you to enter into life with one eye, rather than having two eyes, to be cast into hell fire."

- Matthew 18:1-9

Yesterday we read that, while they were staying in Galilee, Jesus said to the disciples, "The Son of Man is about to be betrayed into the hands of men, and they will kill Him, and the third day He will be raised up."  And they were exceedingly sorrowful.  When they had come to Capernaum, those who received the temple tax came to Peter and said, "Does your Teacher not pay the temple tax?"  He said, "Yes."  And when he had come into the house, Jesus anticipated him, saying, "What do you think, Simon?  From whom do the kings of the earth take customs or taxes, from their sons or from strangers?"  Peter said to Him, "From strangers."  Jesus said to him, "Then the sons are free.  Nevertheless, lest we offend them, go to the sea, cast in a hook, and take the fish that comes up first.  And when you have opened its mouth, you will find a piece of money; take that and give it to them for Me and you."

At that time the disciples came to Jesus, saying, "Who then is the greatest in the kingdom of heaven?"  Then Jesus called a little child to Him, set him in the midst of them, and said, "Assuredly, I say to you, unless you are converted and become as little children, you will by no means enter the kingdom of heaven.  Therefore whoever humbles himself as this little child is the greatest in the kingdom of heaven.  Whoever receives one little child like this in My name receives Me."  My study bible says that the question of the disciples indicates a selfish interest in worldly power.  Perhaps the second warning Jesus has told them about His death and Resurrection (see yesterday's reading, above) has caused the disciples to anticipate the imminence of the Kingdom.  They assume a manifestation of a worldly kingdom, as was expected of the Messiah.  Pointing to a little child as the model of true discipleship, Jesus emphasizes the virtues required for entrance into the kingdom of heaven, my study bible tells us.  That is, humility, dependence, lowliness, simplicity, obedience, and a willingness to love and be loved.  In Orthodox icons of this event, St. Ignatius of Antioch is depicted as this child.  In certain legends of the saints,  St. Ignatius is the boy who gave the loaves and fishes (John 6:9).

"Whoever causes one of these little ones who believe in Me to sin, it would be better for him if a millstone were hung around his neck, and he were drowned in the depth of the sea.  Woe to the world because of offenses!  For offenses must come, but woe to that man by whom the offense comes!Little ones are all those who have childlike humility and simply, all who are poor in spirit.  That is, those who look to the Church for help and guidance.  Jesus is both cautioning and preparing His disciples for their roles as bishops and leaders of the Church to come.

"If your hand or foot causes you to sin, cut it off and cast it from you.  It is better for you to enter into life lame or maimed, rather than having two hands or two feet, to be cast into the everlasting fire.  And if your eye causes you to sin, pluck it out and cast it from you.  It is better for you to enter into life with one eye, rather than having two eyes, to be cast into hell fire."  Jesus teaches something quite similar in the Sermon on the Mount (5:29).  My study bible says that the reference to mutilation is an illustration of decisive action to avoid sin.  Jesus does not advocate literal amputation!  This is also a reference to harmful relationships that must be severed for the salvation of all parties (see Luke 14:26; 1 Corinthians 5:5).

Jesus begins to prepare the disciples for their leadership in the Church that is to come, after His death, Resurrection, and Ascension and the coming of the Holy Spirit at Pentecost.  Here, His most important consideration is the little ones of the Church -- those who will need leadership and whose dependency upon the Church is for the salvation of their souls and guidance for their lives.  These are the precious commodities of the world, so to speak, those who need help, shelter, protection.  For their sake, it is necessary to take all action to prevent offenses.  If we think of foot, or hand, or eye, as Jesus suggests in His examples, we can also think of the sins of abuse of power that go with them.  A foot may go where it is unbidden, intrude over safe boundaries, violating the sanctity of a person or property.  A hand may grab what doesn't belong to a person, another violation of respect for others, especially of care for the little ones, those who have no worldly power or authority or rank.  An eye may look with a gaze that covets what does not belong to it, or in ways that suggest ownership rather than stewardship, conservatorship, or spiritual parent.  All of these things about which Jesus gives such a sharp warning are those things that violate good guidance and leadership.  They cast arbitrary goals and gains of selfishness over true wisdom and what it means to be a spiritual custodian of others, especially the littlest ones.  Jesus' words teach us about respect and the true spiritual liberation that belongs to each in Christ, wherein souls are meant to be guided to their highest good.  Among leadership of His Church, this requires the greatest discipline, and the willingness to sacrifice whatever stands in the way of His teachings for care of the littlest ones, those of all ages who are dependent upon spiritual leadership.  He gives us warning and guidance which apply to all of us, a way of being, and the character of power that is blessed.  May we continue to learn from Him, and put it into practice and understanding.



Wednesday, November 22, 2017

What do you think, Simon? From whom do the kings of the earth take customs or taxes, from their sons or from strangers?


 Now while they were staying in Galilee, Jesus said to them, "The Son of Man is about to be betrayed into the hands of men, and they will kill Him, and the third day He will be raised up."  And they were exceedingly sorrowful.

When they had come to Capernaum, those who received the temple tax came to Peter and said, "Does your Teacher not pay the temple tax?"  He said, "Yes."  And when he had come into the house, Jesus anticipated him, saying, "What do you think, Simon?  From whom do the kings of the earth take customs or taxes, from their sons or from strangers?"  Peter said to Him, "From strangers."  Jesus said to him, "Then the sons are free.  Nevertheless, lest we offend them, go to the sea, cast in a hook, and take the fish that comes up first.  And when you have opened its mouth, you will find a piece of money; take that and give it to them for Me and you."

- Matthew 17:22-27

Yesterday we read that when Jesus, James, John and Peter, returning from the mount of Transfiguration, had come to the multitude, a man came to Him, kneeling down to Him and saying, "Lord, have mercy on my son, for he is an epileptic and suffers severely; for he often falls into the fire and often into the water.  So I brought him to Your disciples, but they could not cure him."  Then Jesus answered and said, "O faithless and perverse generation, how long shall I be with you?  How long shall I bear with you?  Bring him here to Me."  And Jesus rebuked the demon, and it came out of him; and the child was cured from that very hour.  Then the disciples came to Jesus privately and said, "Why could we not cast it out?"  So Jesus said to them, "Because of your unbelief; for assuredly, I say to you, if you have faith as a mustard seed, you will say to this mountain, 'Move from here to there,' and it will move; and nothing will be impossible for you.  However, this kind does not go out except by prayer and fasting."

 Now while they were staying in Galilee, Jesus said to them, "The Son of Man is about to be betrayed into the hands of men, and they will kill Him, and the third day He will be raised up."  And they were exceedingly sorrowful.   This is the second time Jesus has given a warning to the disciples about His death and Resurrection.  The first was at 16:21, and at that time was met with great resistance from Peter, for which he was rebuked by Christ (see this reading).  But now, the disciples respond by being exceedingly sorrowful.   Jesus shows that He is going to His Passion freely, and not against His will.  The experience of the Transfiguration has also conveyed to the disciples (through Peter, James, and John) that Jesus' divinity is ever-present and powerful, thus He could not go to His human death except voluntarily.

When they had come to Capernaum, those who received the temple tax came to Peter and said, "Does your Teacher not pay the temple tax?"  He said, "Yes."  And when he had come into the house, Jesus anticipated him, saying, "What do you think, Simon?  From whom do the kings of the earth take customs or taxes, from their sons or from strangers?"  Peter said to Him, "From strangers."  Jesus said to him, "Then the sons are free.  Nevertheless, lest we offend them, go to the sea, cast in a hook, and take the fish that comes up first.  And when you have opened its mouth, you will find a piece of money; take that and give it to them for Me and you."  Peter, as is habitual for his character, immediately answers "Yes" when asked if Jesus pays the temple tax.  Throughout varied incidents in Scripture, Peter will show a sensitivity to what we might call "social pressure" or expectations.  And, as is also in some sense typical, Jesus anticipates what has happened with Peter.  He is aware of what has already transpired as Peter comes into the house, which is Peter's family home in Capernaum.  My study bible says that this was an annual head tax on all male Jews (with the exception of priests) over twelve years of age for the maintenance of the temple (Numbers 3:43-51).  Jesus, as Son of God, is both High Priest and "proprietor" of the temple, and therefore is exempt from the tax.  But Jesus pays it anyway, both to avoid unnecessary offense and to show that He has totally identified Himself with mankind, my study bible explains.  The coin taken from the mouth of the fish is given in the original Greek as one worth the precise amount for two people.

What do we make of the temple tax, and its being taken from the mouth of a fish?   We remember that it is Peter the fisherman to whom, along with James and John Zebedee, Jesus told, "Follow Me, and I will make you fishers of men"  (4:19).  In a sense, from the beginning, Jesus uses the talents and "metier" of Peter -- and by extension, all of His disciples and followers -- to redeem souls in the service of God.  The temple tax was a redemption tax, paid for the redemption of the soul of the individual for whom it was paid.  But Christ -- who is Himself both King and Son -- comes into the the world seeking other "sons" and "heirs."  It is these who are exempt from tax, according the conversation of Peter and Jesus.  St. Cyril of Alexandria comments, "For we are the fish snatched from the bitter disturbances of life. It is just as if we have been caught out of the sea on the apostles’ hooks. In their mouths the fish have Christ the royal coin, which was rendered in payment of debt for two things, for our soul and for our body."  In other words, this fish caught by the one commissioned by Christ to be a "fisher of men" becomes itself symbolic of the fact of redemption, the payment of the price for the soul, and at the same time the means by which sonship is conferred.  That this is by divine action is made "abundantly" clear as this miracle takes place in the depths of the sea, and by means of the first fish caught.  It is a prefiguring of the action of the apostles as fishers of men, and the reality of redemption and sonship in the Church, as transfiguration and fulfillment of the law in Christ.  The miraculous coin is a sort of gift, like those of the Magi at Christ's birth (2:9-11).  But its significance is not lost, as it is a Greek silver coin (a στατῆρα/stater) worth the equivalent of a shekel.  Given to Christ, it stands for the world transformed by God's action and command.  It becomes symbolic of a world redeemed, for both Jew and Greek, poor and wealthy, and our souls and bodies, as St. Cyril also tells us.  Peter immediately responded "Yes" to those who come with malicious intent, trying to trap the Master through His disciple.  But Jesus redeems all things, even in the most unlikely and impossible-seeming ways.  Let us remember this story when we find ourselves in a difficult place, and remember His abundance and redemption of all from all.



Tuesday, November 21, 2017

I say to you, if you have faith as a mustard seed, you will say to this mountain, "Move from here to there," and it will move; and nothing will be impossible for you


 And when they had come to the multitude, a man came to Him, kneeling down to Him and saying, "Lord, have mercy on my son, for he is an epileptic and suffers severely; for he often falls into the fire and often into the water.  So I brought him to Your disciples, but they could not cure him."  Then Jesus answered and said, "O faithless and perverse generation, how long shall I be with you?  How long shall I bear with you?  Bring him here to Me."  And Jesus rebuked the demon, and it came out of him; and the child was cured from that very hour.  Then the disciples came to Jesus privately and said, "Why could we not cast it out?"  So Jesus said to them, "Because of your unbelief; for assuredly, I say to you, if you have faith as a mustard seed, you will say to this mountain, 'Move from here to there,' and it will move; and nothing will be impossible for you.  However, this kind does not go out except by prayer and fasting."

- Matthew 17:14-21

Yesterday we read that after six days from the time Jesus explained privately to the disciples that He will suffer as Messiah, Jesus took Peter, James, and John his brother, led them up on a high mountain by themselves; and He was transfigured before them.  His face shone like the sun, and His clothes became as white as the light.  And behold, Moses and Elijah appeared to them, talking with Him.  Then Peter answered and said to Jesus, "Lord, it is good for us to be here; if You wish, let us make here three tabernacles:  one for You, one for Moses, and one for Elijah."  While he was still speaking, behold, a bright cloud overshadowed them; and suddenly a voice came out of the cloud, saying, "This is My beloved Son, in whom I am well pleased.  Hear Him!"  And when the disciples heard it, they fell on their faces and were greatly afraid.  But Jesus came and touched them and said, "Arise, and do not be afraid."  When they had lifted up their eyes, they saw no one but Jesus only.  Now as they came down from the mountain, Jesus commanded them, saying, "Tell the vision to no one until the Son of Man is risen from the dead."  And His disciples asked Him, saying, "Why then do the scribes say that Elijah must come first?"  Jesus answered and said to them, "Indeed, Elijah is coming first and will restore all things.  But I say to you that Elijah has come already, and they did not know him but did to him whatever they wished.  Likewise the Son of Man is also about to suffer at their hands."  Then the disciples understood that He spoke to them of John the Baptist.

And when they had come to the multitude, a man came to Him, kneeling down to Him and saying, "Lord, have mercy on my son, for he is an epileptic and suffers severely; for he often falls into the fire and often into the water.  So I brought him to Your disciples, but they could not cure him."  Then Jesus answered and said, "O faithless and perverse generation, how long shall I be with you?  How long shall I bear with you?  Bring him here to Me."  And Jesus rebuked the demon, and it came out of him; and the child was cured from that very hour.  In Scripture, my study bible points out, sickness is often connected to demonic activity.  As this father is kneeling, he's showing humility, but he lacks faith.    Although the disciples are also lacking in faith, Jesus first rebukes the man for blaming the disciples, when it is his own greater lack of faith that prevented the boy's healing, my study bible says.  What we observe is that Jesus defends His disciples in front of the multitude, but later rebukes them privately (in the verses following).  This teaches us that we ought first to correct people in private (see 18:15-17).

Then the disciples came to Jesus privately and said, "Why could we not cast it out?"  So Jesus said to them, "Because of your unbelief; for assuredly, I say to you, if you have faith as a mustard seed, you will say to this mountain, 'Move from here to there,' and it will move; and nothing will be impossible for you.  However, this kind does not go out except by prayer and fasting."  St. John Chrysostom comments that this rebuke is directed at the nine disciples who could not cast out the demon.  We recall that Jesus has returned to this multitude with Peter, James, and John from the mountaintop of the Transfiguration (see yesterday's reading, above).  These three -- Peter, James, and John -- are "the pillars" of faith (Galatians 2:9).  When Jesus calls the demon this kind, He refers to all powers of darkness, my study bible says, and not simply those that cause a particular illness.  The word in Greek is γένος, from which we derive the term "genus."  Essentially it means family or offspring.  The banishment of demons requires faith, prayer, and fasting, my study bible says.  There isn't any healing nor victory in spiritual warfare without all three.  Beginning with the Didache (the earliest Christian teaching document, said to be the teachings of the disciples), the Church has taught that both the person in need of healing and the person performing the healing must believe, pray, and fast. 

The mustard seed is such an essential image of faith that Jesus has given it to us twice:  first in a parable about the kingdom of heaven (13:31-32), and now here in this illustration of faith.  It's hard to imagine what a lack of faith is when compared to the tiny size of a mustard seed.  Jesus' metaphor for faith gives us an image of encouragement to faith, however.  In effect, He seems to tell us that what we think is so difficult -- this "mustering" of faith, so to speak -- is actually much simpler and easier than we assume it is.  And, in fact, faith is such a potent substance that we need the smallest amount we can consider to see incredible results.  Regarding Jesus' reference to moving a mountain (which He will repeat in 21:21), my study bible indicates that while it's never been recorded than any of the apostles literally moved a mountain, it's clear that the Church has considered they had this authority if the need had arisen.  There are stories of  saints who made crevices appear in mountains, when necessary.  But more to the point is the power of prayer that is promised here, for things that are spiritually profitable.  There's also a correlation of faith with the working of the Spirit in us, and that connection to prayer as well.  St. Paul writes that "the Spirit also helps in our weaknesses. For we do not know what we should pray for as we ought, but the Spirit Himself makes intercession for us with groanings which cannot be uttered.  Now He who searches the hearts knows what the mind of the Spirit is, because He makes intercession for the saints according to the will of God" (Romans 8:26-27).  What this, in fact, tells us is that faith in Christ, together with the Holy Spirit at work in us, renders prayer in accordance with the will of God.  St. Paul writes in the verse following that "all things work together for good to those who love God, to those who are called according to His purpose."  Faith works to unite all these factors at work in us.  Hence, faith as a mustard seed unleashes cosmic creative forces, things which are far beyond our understanding, even though they are somehow at work in us and among us -- and definitely in all the affairs of the world.  So faith, fasting, and prayer work together for tremendous effect.  Fasting is a discipline that really applies to everything; it teaches us that we're not just victims of our own emotions, impulses, whims, and responses to the myriad provocations of the world around ourselves.  We can, in fact, make choices about what we will partake in and not partake in.  Prayer is purpose, meaning, and the discipline of understanding -- albeit partially -- the mind of God.  It gives us relationship and participation in God and the grace of God, the energies of God, if you will.  Jesus promises us that our devotion and "work" at this effort of faith will give us results.  But we need to understand the nature of participation.  Prayer isn't about what we want or even our own perspective on our needs.  Prayer will shape our lives into something different from what we already know; it is designed to lead us more deeply in participation in this Kingdom, to expand us and open our eyes to something more.  We aim not simply to pray but for a prayerful life, a prayerful way of being in the world.  But let us begin wherever we are and learn the endurance He teaches us.  Persistence is the one constant He always praises.


Monday, November 20, 2017

His face shone like the sun, and His clothes became as white as the light


 Now after six days Jesus took Peter, James, and John his brother, led them up on a high mountain by themselves; and He was transfigured before them.  His face shone like the sun, and His clothes became as white as the light.  And behold, Moses and Elijah appeared to them, talking with Him.  Then Peter answered and said to Jesus, "Lord, it is good for us to be here; if You wish, let us make here three tabernacles:  one for You, one for Moses, and one for Elijah."  While he was still speaking, behold, a bright cloud overshadowed them; and suddenly a voice came out of the cloud, saying, "This is My beloved Son, in whom I am well pleased.  Hear Him!"  And when the disciples heard it, they fell on their faces and were greatly afraid.  But Jesus came and touched them and said, "Arise, and do not be afraid."  When they had lifted up their eyes, they saw no one but Jesus only.

Now as they came down from the mountain, Jesus commanded them, saying, "Tell the vision to no one until the Son of Man is risen from the dead."  And His disciples asked Him, saying, "Why then do the scribes say that Elijah must come first?"  Jesus answered and said to them, "Indeed, Elijah is coming first and will restore all things.  But I say to you that Elijah has come already, and they did not know him but did to him whatever they wished.  Likewise the Son of Man is also about to suffer at their hands."  Then the disciples understood that He spoke to them of John the Baptist.

- Matthew 17:1-13

 Yesterday we read that from the time of Peter's confession of faith that Jesus is the Christ,  Jesus began to show to His disciples that He must go to Jerusalem, and suffer many things from the elders and chief priests and scribes, and be killed, and be raised the third day.  Then Peter took Him aside and began to rebuke Him, saying, "Far be it from You, Lord; this shall not happen to You!"  But He turned and said to Peter, "Get behind Me, Satan!  You are an offense to Me, for you are not mindful of the things of God, but the things of men."  Then Jesus said to His disciples, "If anyone desires to come after Me, let him deny himself, and take up his cross, and follow Me.  For whoever desires to save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for My sake will find it.  For what profit is it to a man if he gains the whole world, and loses his own soul?  Or what will a man give in exchange for his soul?  For the Son of Man will come in the glory of His Father with His angels, and then he will reward each according to his works.  Assuredly, I say to you, there are some standing here who shall not taste death till they see the Son of Man coming in His kingdom."

 Now after six days Jesus took Peter, James, and John his brother, led them up on a high mountain by themselves . . ..  A high mountain, my study bible tells us, is often a place of divine revelation in Scripture (5:1; Genesis 22:2; Exodus 19:3, 23; Isaiah 2:3; 2 Peter 1:18).  After six days means that this is the seventh day after Jesus' teaching about suffering and the Cross, what kind of Messiah He will be.  Seven is the number of completion or fullness; this is a "peak" experience in every way.

. . . and He was transfigured before them.  His face shone like the sun, and His clothes became as white as the light.   For the Orthodox, this event is a major feast day.  That He is transfigured before them indicates a significant revelation, a vision of reality that transcends the worldly, but also gives us an indication of the very nature of our faith.  That His face shone like the sun, and His clothes became as white as the light teaches us about Jesus' divinity.  This is a theophany, a manifestation of God.  This display of light is of His uncreated, divine energy.  God is light (1 John 1:5), and all the light in this vision -- of His face, His clothing, and also the bright cloud (verse 5, further down) show that Jesus is God.  Many icons portray this light with a blue tinge, indicating that it is beyond white, an ineffable color giving us an understanding of its spiritual origin.

And behold, Moses and Elijah appeared to them, talking with Him  Then Peter answered and said to Jesus, "Lord, it is good for us to be here; if You wish, let us make here three tabernacles:  one for You, one for Moses, and one for Elijah."  Moses and Elijah personify the Law and the Prophets.  Moses represents the law and all those who have died.  Elijah represents the prophets, and -- because he did not experience death -- all those who are live in Christ.  My study bible says that their presence shows that the law and the prophets, the living and the dead, all bear witness to Jesus as the Messiah, the fulfillment of the whole Old Testament.  Moses and Elijah also manifest the communion of saints by their presence (Hebrews 12:1).  Both are immediately recognizable to the disciples, and they talk with the Lord.   Peter has grasped the revelation, and connects it in his mind with the Feast of Tabernacles or Booths, which is significantly the Feast of the Coming Kingdom.  and so suggests building three tabernacles.  The feast (also known as Sukkot) commemorates the time when the Israelites wandered the in the wilderness, led by a bright cloud that signaled God's being extraordinarily present.  Tabernacles for Peter  are symbols of God's dwelling among the just in the Kingdom

While he was still speaking, behold, a bright cloud overshadowed them; and suddenly a voice came out of the cloud, saying, "This is My beloved Son, in whom I am well pleased.  Hear Him!"  And when the disciples heard it, they fell on their faces and were greatly afraid.  But Jesus came and touched them and said, "Arise, and do not be afraid."  When they had lifted up their eyes, they saw no one but Jesus only.   Here there is a manifestation of the Trinity.  The Father speaks of the nature of Christ as Son ("This is My beloved Son" indicates that the glory the disciples witness is Christ's by nature, an eternal truth).  The bright cloud that overshadows them indicates the presence of the Spirit which also shines in the dazzling light surrounding Christ and the whole mountain. 


Now as they came down from the mountain, Jesus commanded them, saying, "Tell the vision to no one until the Son of Man is risen from the dead."  And His disciples asked Him, saying, "Why then do the scribes say that Elijah must come first?"  Jesus answered and said to them, "Indeed, Elijah is coming first and will restore all things.  But I say to you that Elijah has come already, and they did not know him but did to him whatever they wished.  Likewise the Son of Man is also about to suffer at their hands."  Then the disciples understood that He spoke to them of John the Baptist.  For the second time, Jesus indicates the disciples are not to reveal to others that He is the Christ, the divine Son (the first was after the confession of faith that He is the Son of God, 16:16).  Because of the vision and the revelation of the Kingdom and the communion of saints, the disciples are now able to understand Jesus' words regarding the prophecy of Elijah's return.  That Elijah has come already refers to John the Baptist; they can now understand Malachi's prophecy (Malachi 4:5-6) as referring to one coming "in the spirit and power of Elijah" (Luke 1:17) rather than Elijah himself.   Jesus takes the occasion to affirm once more to the disciples the nature of His messiahship:  that He will suffer.

These disciples, Jesus' "inside circle" of the brothers John and James, and Peter, have a true "mountaintop experience."  This is perhaps the pinnacle of the worldly lives and experiences of these disciples, as they are given a vision of the revelation of highest divinity.  Light is a characteristic of God, as we've read (1 John 1:5), but it's also an indication of God's presence with us, a revelation that there may be so much more to life than we normally perceive.  Particularly for Eastern Christianity, the Transfiguration became a central indication of the presence of God, not only in its revelation of Christ and the Trinity, and the communion of saints, but also of the nature of our lives in Christ.  For this light, this divine energy of God, also transfigures human beings.  The vision of light is given to the disciples, but it is also a vision of the work of the God in the world that we don't necessarily perceive, and yet it is present with us.  At the Last Supper, Jesus tells the disciples that He will pray to the Father, and the Father will send the Helper, the Holy Spirit, the Spirit of truth so that "He may abide with you forever," "He will teach you all things, and bring to your remembrance all things that I said to you," and "He will testify of Me" (John 14:16, 14:26, 15:26).  Christ's suffering -- His death on the Cross -- will make this possible, that the experience of this light that the disciples have now will render them capable of understanding the reality of the Spirit which is sent to us through Christ's sacrifice (John 12:24).   They will also understand that His suffering is voluntary, and His nature truly divine.  Therefore, the vision of Jesus' transfiguration and what it is to be full of light, that the world is illumined through this light, will become a lasting understanding of the work and action of the Spirit and its illumination in us.  "Transfiguration" in Greek is Metamorphosis, and this word gives us a flavor of how this event shaped an understanding of how Christ lives in us.  It gives to us a conceptual framework of what it is to participate in grace, and how the action of grace works in our lives.  To think of this illuminating light that surrounds everything, is within everything, and is always present in our world, is to have a vision of God's energies at work.  It is also a vision of complete beauty, a transcendent reality that is also a part of our lives, if we but learn to recognize it, and to perceive its values and meanings.  The disciples are permanently changed, their perception now allowing them to realize the prophecy from Malachi and its spiritual meaning present in their own lives.    The light of the saints is the adornment of this beauty.   May it continue to illuminate the good, the true, and the beautiful for each of us, by God's grace.   It is the presence of the Kingdom, the reality for which our world and our lives were made.  His is the light that reveals our true destination and hope.  This beauty is the true pearl of great price, worth every cost, surpassing the beauty of everything else.






Saturday, November 18, 2017

Get behind Me, Satan! You are an offense to Me, for you are not mindful of the things of God, but the things of men


 From that time Jesus began to show to His disciples that He must go to Jerusalem, and suffer many things from the elders and chief priests and scribes, and be killed, and be raised the third day.  Then Peter took Him aside and began to rebuke Him, saying, "Far be it from You, Lord; this shall not happen to You!"  But He turned and said to Peter, "Get behind Me, Satan!  You are an offense to Me, for you are not mindful of the things of God, but the things of men."  Then Jesus said to His disciples, "If anyone desires to come after Me, let him deny himself, and take up his cross, and follow Me.  For whoever desires to save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for My sake will find it.  For what profit is it to a man if he gains the whole world, and loses his own soul?  Or what will a man give in exchange for his soul?  For the Son of Man will come in the glory of His Father with His angels, and then he will reward each according to his works.  Assuredly, I say to you, there are some standing here who shall not taste death till they see the Son of Man coming in His kingdom." 

- Matthew 16:21-28

Yesterday we read that when Jesus came into the region of Caesarea Philippi, He asked His disciples, saying, "Who do men say that I, the Son of Man, am?"  So they said, "Some say John the Baptist, some Elijah, and others Jeremiah or one of the prophets."  He said to them, "But who do you say that I am?"  Simon Peter answered and said, "You are the Christ, the Son of the living God."  Jesus answered and said to him, "Blessed are you, Simon Bar-Jonah, for flesh and blood has not revealed this to you, but My Father who is in heaven.  And I also say to you that you are Peter, and on this rock I will build My church, and the gates of Hades shall not prevail against it.  And I will give you the keys of the kingdom of heaven, and whatever you bind on earth will be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth will be loosed in heaven."  Then He commanded His disciples that they should tell no one that He was Jesus the Christ.

 From that time Jesus began to show to His disciples that He must go to Jerusalem, and suffer many things from the elders and chief priests and scribes, and be killed, and be raised the third day.  Then Peter took Him aside and began to rebuke Him, saying, "Far be it from You, Lord; this shall not happen to You!"  But He turned and said to Peter, "Get behind Me, Satan!  You are an offense to Me, for you are not mindful of the things of God, but the things of men."  After the confession of faith by Peter that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of the living God (yesterday's reading, above), Jesus reveals privately to the disciples the full nature of His messiahship:  the mystery of His Passion.  My study bible explains that it was expected that the Messiah would reign forever.  Therefore the idea that Christ would die was perplexing to Peter and remained scandalous to the Jews even after the Resurrection (1 Corinthians 1:23).  Here Peter unwittingly speaks for Satan, as the devil would want to deter Christ from fulfilling His saving mission to mankind through suffering and death.

Then Jesus said to His disciples, "If anyone desires to come after Me, let him deny himself, and take up his cross, and follow Me."  Here is the central paradox of Christian living.  My study bible says that in grasping for temporal things, we lose the eternal.  But in sacrificing everything in this world, we gain eternal riches that are unimaginable (1 Corinthians 2:9).

"For what profit is it to a man if he gains the whole world, and loses his own soul?  Or what will a man give in exchange for his soul?  For the Son of Man will come in the glory of His Father with His angels, and then he will reward each according to his works."  What Christ promises is a depth of reality in existence that gives eternal life for our souls.  It is for this we have the image of the Cross.   What else is worth existence?  Accumulating worldly wealth or power, my study bible says, cannot redeem  a fallen soul, nor benefit a person in the life to come.

"Assuredly, I say to you, there are some standing here who shall not taste death till they see the Son of Man coming in His kingdom."   My study bible notes that this is a reference to those who will witness the next event in Matthew's Gospel, the Transfiguration (17:1-9), and also to those in every generation who will experience the presence of God's Kingdom. 

Jesus will set the example for all of us with the Crucifixion.  What do we live for?  What is worth dying for?  In the hymn of the Eastern Orthodox for Easter, it is sung that Jesus trampled down death by death.  That is, by Jesus' death on the Cross, He abolishes death for all of us who will "follow Him."  It is a supreme and cosmic sort of exchange of one kind of life for another -- a temporal life of one for an eternal life for all.  Jesus speaks of sacrifice when He says, "If anyone desires to come after Me, let him deny himself, and take up his cross, and follow Me.  For whoever desires to save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for My sake will find it.  For what profit is it to a man if he gains the whole world, and loses his own soul?  Or what will a man give in exchange for his soul?"  But this is not sacrifice for its own sake, and it's not sacrifice of our choosing.  What is sacrificed is all that which stands in the way of God's love, God's purpose, an eternal reality in which we are not only invited to participate but which offers us eternal life.  Christ shows us the way, and the appropriate orientation to sacrifice, by going to the Cross and asking us to take up our own.  His Resurrection shows us the purpose of sacrifice, just exactly what it is for.  The gift of the Holy Spirit that results for all of us, even in our temporal life in the here and now of this world, is the ever-giving gift that is but one of the benefits of Christ's sacrifice on the Cross.  What we are asked to forgo is nothing in terms of the comparative value of our souls, and each sacrifice which God may ask is for us, not against us.  As painful as sacrifice may be, the rewards of participation are greater beyond any comparison possible, because they give us the fullness of life itself, and are imbued with a love that continues to give, to us and through us.  On the other side of that Cross is a world redeemed and illumined, made sacrament rather than simply sacrifice.  Our lives, we might find, also become sacrament.  For the apostles (that is, all but one) this will be the case -- lives transfigured and made full for the whole world.  We don't know what effects His life, death, and sacrifice on the Cross will have on us and our lives when we follow Him.  But we know that what we give to God is simply His gift to us returned -- and transfigured in so doing.  God's gifts multiply when returned back to us, as holiness and spiritual fruitfulness.  It is our participation in His sacrifice that allows us to know the blessings that result, and the ways in which we may bring such blessings into the world through our own bearing of our crosses.  But we don't chart that course, it is charted for us, and we need be mindful of "the things of God."






Friday, November 17, 2017

But who do you say that I am?


 When Jesus came into the region of Caesarea Philippi, He asked His disciples, saying, "Who do men say that I, the Son of Man, am?"  So they said, "Some say John the Baptist, some Elijah, and others Jeremiah or one of the prophets."  He said to them, "But who do you say that I am?"  Simon Peter answered and said, "You are the Christ, the Son of the living God."  Jesus answered and said to him, "Blessed are you, Simon Bar-Jonah, for flesh and blood has not revealed this to you, but My Father who is in heaven.  And I also say to you that you are Peter, and on this rock I will build My church, and the gates of Hades shall not prevail against it.  And I will give you the keys of the kingdom of heaven, and whatever you bind on earth will be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth will be loosed in heaven."  Then He commanded His disciples that they should tell no one that He was Jesus the Christ.

- Matthew 16:13-20

Yesterday we read that the Pharisees and Sadducees came to Jesus, and testing Him asked that He would show them a sign from heaven.  He answered and said to them, "When it is evening you say, 'It will be fair weather, for the sky is red'; and in the morning, 'It will be foul weather today, for the sky is red and threatening.'  Hypocrites!  You know how to discern the face of the sky, but you cannot discern the signs of the times.  A wicked and adulterous generation seeks after a sign, and no sign shall be given to it except the sign of the prophet Jonah."  And He left them and departed.  Now when His disciples had come to the other side, they had forgotten to take bread.  Then Jesus said to them, "Take heed and beware of the leaven of the Pharisees and the Sadducees."  And they reasoned among themselves, saying, "It is because we have taken no bread."  But Jesus, being aware of it, said to them, "O you of little faith, why do you reason among yourselves because you have brought no bread?  Do you not yet understand, or remember the five loaves of the five thousand and how many baskets you took up?  Nor the seven loaves of the four thousand and how many large baskets you took up?  How is it you do not understand that I did not speak to you concerning bread?  -- but to beware of the leaven of the Pharisees and Sadducees."  Then they understood that He did not tell them to beware of the leaven of bread, but of the doctrine of the Pharisees and Sadducees.

 When Jesus came into the region of Caesarea Philippi, He asked His disciples, saying, "Who do men say that I, the Son of Man, am?"  So they said, "Some say John the Baptist, some Elijah, and others Jeremiah or one of the prophets."  He said to them, "But who do you say that I am?"   "Who do you say that I am?" is the greatest question a person can ever face, my study bible tells us.  Indeed, when we consider the controversies and counsels and various heresies throughout the history of Christianity, it all seems to center on this question.  Indeed, the answer defines Christianity.   We note that Jesus first draws out erroneous opinions about Himself.  He does this to identify these incorrect ideas, as a person is better prepared to avoid false teachings when they are clearly identified.  Indeed, in later debate throughout the centuries, this would be a method used by theologians.

 Simon Peter answered and said, "You are the Christ, the Son of the living God."  Peter's correct answer to Jesus' question prevents the Christian faith from being simply another philosophical system or path of spirituality.  It names Jesus as the one and only Son of the living God.  This is an absolute and eternal reality, and embeds the Incarnation as the central act of history, lending myriad and ongoing meaning for human beings.  This position excludes compromise with other religious systems, my study bible says.   Christ means "Anointed One," and is equivalent to the Hebrew title "Messiah."

Jesus answered and said to him, "Blessed are you, Simon Bar-Jonah, for flesh and blood has not revealed this to you, but My Father who is in heaven.  And I also say to you that you are Peter, and on this rock I will build My church, and the gates of Hades shall not prevail against it."  Peter's answer about Jesus' identity cannot be achieved by human reason.  It is only understood by divine revelation through faith (1 Corinthians 12:3).  This statement about Peter is a play on the word for "rock" in both Aramaic and Greek (petros/petra).  The rock, my study bible says, does not refer to Peter per se.  Rather it refers, in the words of St. John Chrysostom, to "the faith of his confession."  The true Rock is Christ Himself (1 Corinthians 10:4), and the Church is built on the faithful confession of Christ.  The gates of Hades are the powers of death.  In the Old Testament, my study bible notes, gates suggest a fortified city (Genesis 22:17; 24:60; Isaiah 14:31).  By shattering its gates, Christ opens the stronghold of death to set free the souls of the righteous.  My study bible adds that so also, the Church shall not be stopped in her proclamation of salvation.  Church (ekklesia) is used as a term only twice in all the gospels, here and in 18:17.  This Church is the true Israel and the Body of Christ; her citizenship is heavenly. 

"And I will give you the keys of the kingdom of heaven, and whatever you bind on earth will be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth will be loosed in heaven."  Then He commanded His disciples that they should tell no one that He was Jesus the Christ.  Keys of the kingdom refers to a special authority that will be given to both Peter and the other apostles after their Resurrection (see 18:18; John 20:23).  My study bible adds that Peter was not a leader "over" the others, but rather among them.  At the Council of Jerusalem (Acts 15) this was confirmed.  There, the apostles and presbyters met as equals, and Peter advised, but James presided.   Peter's role should neither be exaggerated nor diminished in accordance with the New Testament witness.  Binding and loosing refers primarily to the authority to "absolve sins" according to St. John Chrysostom; see also John 20:23.  But, my study bible says, it also includes all the teaching, sacramental, and administrative authority of the apostles.  Apostolic succession is meant to continue to transmit this authority to the bishops of the Church, and continues in effect today.

Here in today's reading is the central question of Christianity, and even for the world.  Who is Christ?  "But who do you say that I am?" is an even more important, and personal question.   Depending on our answer is our orientation to life, to the world, to all the cosmos, even to ourselves.  The Incarnation -- Christ the Son incarnate as human being and born as Jesus of Nazareth -- becomes not just the central question of Christianity.  It becomes the central focus of the purpose of our lives.  The Son born as human being indicates that all of our lives in this world, and all the material reality of who we are:  our bodies, our surroundings, our planet, and all of creation, is glorified in this Incarnation.  The Son, purely divine, takes on human nature.  He will even take on death in order to transfigure and defeat its power over human beings, giving us the capacity for eternal life.  The Incarnation of Jesus Christ declares that everything that is created is good -- it is made for glory.  Up until the Incarnation, there were all kinds of philosophical systems that declared the divine or heavenly good, but the material as bad.  Because of our separation from God, because of sin, our bodies and material life were seen as "pulling down" a better nature.  Temptation that is possible through our senses and experience of life was seen as confirmation that material life is inferior and "bad."  But the Incarnation changes all of that.  Sin is a product of separation from God, not of our bodies.  Ascetic practice is meant for the body, not against it.  Moreover, the experiences of the mystics throughout the centuries of our faith confirm that our very senses can be transformed to encounter God in inexplicable ways.  All of this is to say that the Incarnation gives us a perspective on our faith and its purposes.  How else do the fruits of the Spirit manifest in human beings, in the here and the now, except that body, soul, mind, heart, and strength are all one, with a central root in Creator?  How else should we see all the marvelous healing miracles of Christ, whether they be exorcism or healing blindness, lameness, deafness, etc. except to understand the connection between body, soul, and spirit in relation to Creator?  Jesus' Incarnation takes it all on, takes it all in, glorifies it all, even our suffering takes on purpose and meaning because Christ is both divine and human.  We participate in the life He brings into the world.  We participate in His life, death, and Resurrection only through the possibilities of the Incarnation.  And that is why Christianity is important, even essential to understanding life in our world and its basic goodness and capacity for restoration in relationship and union with Creator.  The Incarnation confirms that we are created in God's image; and it teaches that we are free to grow in God's likeness through the fruits of the Spirit working in us.  The Incarnation means that there is not a moment of our lives that is lost to meaning.  That is, every choice becomes important, because every choice that He made was important -- and His life is the example for all of His disciples.  Jesus as Christ brings us as close to God as we can possibly be, and ties the divine into our world, giving illumination to everything.    He has made it possible for us to live in that light and share in it and be a part of its illumination of the world (5:14).  He has commanded us that we do so, even as each one is faithful:  "Let your light so shine before men, that they may see your good works and glorify your Father in heaven" (5:16).   His Incarnation has taught us that we are never alone, just as He was not alone, and it made possible the sending of the Spirit for us.  Let us be always grateful and remember what He is here for when we doubt the value, importance, or meaning of our own lives and choices.