Sunday, May 22, 2016

There is one holiness

For All Saints Sunday 

Icon of All Saints
16-20 c.

Paul addresses most of his epistles to the saints of this or that city. And, I hope, if he were writing to us, he would say the same and would address the saints among us.

Although, when he addresses the Galatians, he does not call them saints. His letter is written to rebuke them because they have been turning to a different gospel, a perversion of the gospel of Christ.

So, if Paul were writing to our church, would he call us saints? Or, would he, as he did addressing the Galatians, leave that part out? Are we following the gospel of Jesus Christ that Paul preaches? Or are we accepting a different gospel, receiving a different spirit, or preaching another Jesus (cf. 2 Cor 11:4)?

Some in Galatia were holding up circumcision and the works of the old law over and against faith working through love in Christ, the love which in truth fulfills the whole law (cf. Gal 5:6,14). This excessive regard for externals I don’t think is the typical error of our age, but we are inclined toward other errors.

Sometimes, we excessively internalize our faith. We regard it as a private matter, not something to be discussed in public. We are sometimes cowards and we sometimes fail to acknowledge Christ before others. Today, Christ tells us that if we acknowledge him before others, he will acknowledge us before his Father. That is, he will make us his saints. Likewise, if we deny him, he will deny us before his Father (Matt 10:32-33).

If we love Jesus, we will keep his commandments (John 14:15). Among other things, He commands us to acknowledge him before others (Matt 10:32). He commands us to go into all the world and preach the gospel to the whole creation (Mark 16:15). And he commands us to baptize every nation in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit (Matt 28:19).

If we keep these commandments, Christ will acknowledge us before his Father (Matt 10:32). He will remember us forever. And so we will live forever in him, our resurrected Lord. In Christ, we will know the Father, which is eternal life (John 17:3). This is holiness indeed: oneness with God. This is what it is to be a saint.  

This word “saint” is interesting. If we look at the Greek, ἅγιος, it’s the same as the word for holy. Sometimes Greek has many words for which we have only one, as in the case of “love,” but sometimes, it goes the other way and they have one word, for which we have many. And this is the case with the word ἅγιος, which means holy, which means saint, which means sanctuary (e.g Heb 8:2). At times, even Jesus is simply called the Holy – ὁ ἅγιος (e.g. Mark 1:24). This is worth keeping in mind when we think about the saints. Saint and Holy are utterly synonymous. There is no difference at all in the mind of the fathers, or in the mind of Paul. There are not two holinesses, but one holiness. If someone or something is holy, it can only be because they are partakers of the one holiness.

The single greatest teaching of the second Vatican council, in my opinion, is that there is a universal call to holiness. This is not a new teaching. Not by any stretch.  This was already the teaching revealed by the Lord God through Moses in the wilderness of Sinai 3,310 years ago – or so. The Lord our God says in all ages, “be holy, for I am holy” (Lev 11:44-45).

There’s a tall order. The holiness of the Lord our God cannot be overstated. Holy, Holy, Holy is the Lord, the God of hosts. Three times holy is he. In Hebrew, this is a superlative. He is the holiest one and the source of all holiness, in whom is any holiness that is.

Yet, as the Lord, he is God of hosts, that is, as Fr. Stephen Freeman puts it, God of a huge crowd. He is in and with and surrounded by his saints. “Orthodox worship and prayer,” Fr. Stephen writes, “is simply crowded. Though we worship only the Triune God, we nevertheless do so in company with a ‘great cloud of witnesses.’” God, who alone is holy, has chosen not to be alone in his holiness, but to surround himself with those he has made holy, those he has made one with himself by his grace.

In the Divine Liturgy, after the consecration, the priest holds the holy lamb and says, “Holy gifts to holy people.” Does this mean you have to be a saint in order to come forward to receive Holy Communion? Yes, it does! There is no difference between “saint” and “holy.”

Then how do we become saints? None of us is sinless – but among the saints are sinners, every degree of sinner, and every kind of sinner – just like us. So when I say, yes, we have to be holy before we come forward, we have to be saints before we receive the holy things which are for the holy ones, I am speaking of a miracle of God’s mercy and grace with which we cooperate through prayer and humility and confession of our sins. We do not make ourselves saints, the Lord makes us saints.

Every saint he makes is unique. We honor them all. We need them all. Just as in one body, every member is different, yet every member needs the others for the whole body to thrive (cf. Rom 12:4-5). Every person that God makes, God wants and needs for his purposes. We are wanted and needed by God. We should seek God’s purpose for our own lives. As Fr. Thomas Hopko points out, if we are condemned or damned it will not be because we are not the Theotokos, or we are not John the Baptist, or we are not Isaac the Syrian. It will be because we are not truly ourselves. It is for not being who God created us to be that we could be damned. The ultimate authority on who we should be and what we should do is our author and creator.

He reveals a lot of this to us through the Church, so don’t think this means that we can go it alone. Because God gave us the Church to guide us into holiness, that is, into the person that God made each of us to be. Going it alone was never his vision for any human being. We are communal creatures. We are a community of persons, in the image of God, who is a community of persons. The Church is that community - that coming together as one with God and one another.

Abba Dorotheos of Gaza has a beautiful image of a wheel, in which the center – the axis – is God, and each of us are somewhere along the spokes of the wheel. You see, the closer we get to God, the closer we get to each other. Also, the further we get from God, the further we get from each other.

For this reason, it makes no sense to receive communion – to enter into communion with God – if we have animosity toward our brother or sister (Matt 5:23-24). There is no communion with God without communion with one another. First of all, we must “be reconciled with everyone and have no animosity toward anyone.” This is the first rubric in the Liturgikon.

Before we dare to approach with the fear of God and with faith, we pray that the holy mysteries be for our healing and not for our condemnation. We pray that the Lord make us worthy to receive. And we pray for mercy. This prayer – this Kyrie eleison – is our path to holiness. Holiness never comes from relying on the self, but rather on the one to whom we pray. To rely on the Lord, who alone is holy and who alone can make us holy.

So, when the priest holds the Eucharist in his hands and says, “Holy gifts to holy people” what can we say? We can only say, “One is holy, one is Lord, Jesus Christ, to the glory of God the Father.” All holiness that is comes from the holy one.

The holy one, Jesus Christ, teaches us how to be holy in today’s gospel. We must confess Christ before others, we must love him more than all others, even more than our fathers and mothers and sons and daughters. And we must take up our cross and follow him (Matt 10:37-38). These are Jesus’ own words. This is his prescription for holiness.

When we are baptized into Christ, we are clothed with Christ and we begin to become one with him. We must thereafter imitate him, especially in his self-sacrificial love, to remain and grow toward ever greater union with the holy one, Jesus Christ, who is one in essence with the Father who is holy.  

Sunday, May 8, 2016

The Holy Spirit Inspires the Church

Sunday of the Fathers at the First Nicene Council
Today, (did you hear?) Paul was hurrying to Jerusalem in order to get there for Pentecost (Acts 20:16). Pentecost is coming next Sunday, and with it our commemoration of the coming of the Holy Spirit upon the apostles. Already, the Spirit is with us. And today we remember the fathers of the first ecumenical council, which met in Nicaea in 325, and who were also inspired by the same Holy Spirit.

The First Council of Nicea, wall painting at the church of Stavropoleos
Bucharest, Romania

At every Divine Liturgy and at every Compline, we repeat the Nicene Creed which these fathers began to craft under the inspiration of the Spirit. The Nicene faith is our faith, the God-inspired faith, the faith of our fathers and mothers.

The Holy Spirit inspires the Church. God is with us. Some fall into a trap of confining the presence and action of God to historical events like Pentecost or to historical documents like Scripture. Or, toward another extreme, some limit their understanding of the Spirit to private individual ecstatic experiences.

In truth, the Holy Spirit inspires the Church.

The Church is, but is not only, historical. It is also the living and breathing body of Christ. It is fully present here where we are gathered in the name of Jesus Christ, where the Holy Spirit descends upon us and upon our gifts, where the Father hears our prayer. And it is present throughout the world wherever orthodoxy is believed and wherever orthopraxis is observed.

In the Church, our experience of God is, but is not only, private and personal. We encounter God alone in our prayer closets, but we also encounter Him in one another, in the least of his brethren, and in our communal prayer, in the mysteries of the Church and in the public proclamation of His Word.

In that public proclamation today we, with the apostles, overhear Jesus say to his Father, “This is eternal life, that they know you the only true God, and Jesus Christ whom you have sent.” (17:3).

There are ten thousand sermons in this one verse, but today I am struck by an odd turn of phrase: Jesus Christ calls himself Jesus Christ in the third person. This points to an intriguing possibility. It is possible that this prayer of Jesus at his Last Supper was long remembered liturgically before it was committed to writing, which could explain why the prayer is both from Jesus Christ and about Jesus Christ.[i] The gospel of John is the latest gospel to be written and it benefits from the longest theological reflection. Its prose and rhetoric are finely polished. Chiefly for this gospel’s sake, John, whose feast is today, is rightly called the Theologian.

These facts call to mind the reality that while for a while there were Christians without any written gospels, there were never any Christians without worship, without liturgy, without anamnesis/remembrance, without Eucharist/thanksgiving. The inspired Divine Liturgy precedes the inspired written gospels.

Today Jesus says to His Father, “I have given them the words you gave me and they have received them” (17:3). But Jesus did not write down these words. The gospels tell us that Jesus could both read and write. But the only writing that he does, mysteriously, is in the sand – letters that the wind could blow away – perhaps a wind like that wind that blows in the upper room where the apostles hide.

Jesus does not give us a manuscript, but rather the testimony of women and men. He writes his revelation on their hearts. He chooses to reveal himself through people – the people of God - that is, through the Church.

The Holy Spirit inspires the Church, and we must follow the Church, never the Scripture alone. The Scripture is the inspired word of God and the Holy Spirit inspires it in and through the Church, never apart from or against the Church. Decontextualized from the Church, the Scripture can be distorted and perverted to any false teaching or wicked purpose the interpreter desires. Thank God, God did not leave us with the Scripture alone, but also gave us His holy Church.

Today in Acts, Paul tells the elders [that is, the presbyters] of Ephesus that “the Holy Spirit has made you overseers [that is, ἐπίσκοποι, bishops] to feed the Church of the Lord which he obtained with his own blood” (Acts 20:28). The same Holy Spirit that inspires Scripture and that descends upon the apostles at Pentecost also makes presbyters and bishops for the Church. Ordination is an act of God, a holy mystery, an epiclesis. This isn’t a different Spirit, but the same Spirit. There is one Holy Spirit, one God, one faith, one Church. The Holy Spirit gives us the Scripture and he gives us the bishops too. We don’t get one without the other. We need them both absolutely.

This doesn’t mean that bishops are always good and holy. In fact, if we study the history of the ecumenical councils we discover an uncomfortable amount of all-too human politics, rivalries, and intrigues. Despite this, the Holy Spirit works through these councils, just as he works through Peter, who denied him, and through Paul, who persecuted his Church. Truth is expressed by God from out of the midst of human failings. God is with us, in the midst of us. The Holy Spirit inspires the Church.

When a presbyter, Arius, begins to lead people astray, teaching that Jesus is not of one divine essence with the Father, but rather some kind of exalted creature of God, the Holy Spirit inspires the Nicene council which we commemorate today.

The Arians misread today’s gospel. When Jesus says to his Father that he is “the only true God,” the Arians thought that this must mean that Jesus himself was not the true God. This is what I mean. How quickly the human mind can stumble into error when reading the Scripture alone unaided by the Church. The Holy Spirit has given us both because we need both in order to come to orthodoxy.

The Nicene Council provided the needed corrective. As we say in the Nicene Creed, Jesus Christ is “Son of God, the only-begotten, born of the Father before all ages.  Light from light, true God from true God, begotten, not made, one in essence with the Father.” Our Christology couldn’t get any higher.

Our holy father Athanasius, who was present at the Nicene Council as a deacon and who spent the rest of his life defending its teachings against the world, provides the true understanding of the word “only” in today’s gospel. He writes against the Arians,

“If then the Father is called the only true God, this is said not to the denial of him who said, "I am the Truth…” And so the Lord himself added at once, "And Jesus Christ whom you have sent." Now had he been a creature, he would not have added this and ranked himself with his creator. For what fellowship is there between the True and the not true? But as it is, by including himself with the Father, he has shown that he is of the Father's nature.”[ii]

The Holy Spirit was inspiring the Church before the gospels were written, and he continues to inspire the Church after they are written. This is never more evident than when there is an ecumenical council. At the council of Nicaea, the Holy Spirit taught the Church a new word: homoousios, that is, of one essence. The Son is of one essence with the Father. Jesus Christ is not less than God. He is God. And there are not two Gods, but one God. Many of the fathers of the council were reluctant to accept this word at first because it appears nowhere in scripture and because it had been employed in the past by heretics. But guided by the Holy Spirit and for the benefit of all the people of God, accept it they did.

A priest once told me that there are only two words I must never say from the pulpit. One of them is “change.” I’m not going to say the other word. But sometimes the Holy Spirit inspires change. Homoousios was a new word, once.

We must not forget the presence of the Holy Spirit in the Church at all times, without whose presence we are not the Church.

[i] (Suggit 1992). Malan, G.J., 2011, ‘Does John 17:11b, 21−23 refer to church unity?’, HTS Teologiese Studies/Theological Studies 67(1), Art. #857.
[ii] Discourses against the Arians 3.23.6-24.8-9.

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