Sunday, July 31, 2011

The Cost of Conforming

Dear Parish Faithful,

At the beginning of his “pastoral” teaching in ch. 12 of his Epistle to the Romans, the Apostle Paul delivers an admonition that is timeless in its challenge for serious-minded Christians:

Do not be conformed to this world but be transformed by the renewal of your mind, that you may prove what is the will of God, what is good and acceptable and perfect.
(ROM. 12:2)

Loosely defined, to conform is to “take on the form,” or “to be like” someone or something; or to “fit in” in a manner that does not draw any attention to oneself. It seems as if most of us – Christians and non-Christians - are conformists by nature. We feel uneasy about standing out, or doing things that would be considered too “different.” Since the Church is not a “cult,” Christians are not expected to practice a kind of non-conformity in the everyday aspects of life that would make them seem eccentric or socially disengaged. We find this expressed as early as the 2nd century in the document known as The Epistle to Diognetus. This rather charming work, anonymously written, contains a passage that addresses some issues tied to the theme of conformity (and Christian non-conformity). In reading this passage, one is reminded of the general principle of being in but not of the world:

For the distinction between Christians and other men, is neither in country nor language nor customs ... Yet while living in Greek and barbarian cities, according as each obtained by his lot, and following local customs, both in clothing and food and in the rest of life, they show forth the wonderful and confessedly strange character of the constitution of their own citizenship. They dwell in their own fatherlands, but as if sojourners in them; they share all things as citizens, and suffer all things as strangers. Every foreign country is their fatherland, and every fatherland is a foreign country. they marry as all men, they bear children, but they do not expose their offspring. They offer hospitality, but guard their purity. Their lot is cast “in the flesh,” but they do not live “after the flesh.” They pass their time upon the earth, but they have their citizenship in heaven. (Epistle to Diognetus, v.)

In other words, the early Christians were quite willing to share the same “lifestyles” as their pagan neighbors, at least on the surface level of day-to-day existence. However, when faced with some contemporary practices that may have been legal and acceptable, but unacceptable from the vision of life in the Church, for the most part the early Christians chose the “higher law” of the Gospel. This prevented our spiritual ancestors from being too far drawn into a morally and ethically compromised way of life.

Yet what happens when our innocent conformity lacks a sense of balance? Or when we become excessive or even obsessive in our desire toward “conforming to this world?” What does it mean if our wardrobes keep expanding; our cars choices are more status-driven than ever; our houses keep getting bigger and more expensive to maintain; and our over-all consumerism leaves us spiritually exhausted in pursuit of the “American dream?” That sounds like “conforming to this world” in disregard of the Apostle Paul’s admonition. This can further spill into areas of a moral and ethical concern; as when we defend an ideology or political party that is contrary to the Gospel that respects human life, gender distinctions, the poor and needy, and peacemakers instead of warmongers.

How much time, talent or treasure remains in order to practice Christian stewardship when so much is poured into this world beyond our basic needs? In satisfying our desire to conform to this world, are we left with offering our “leftovers” to the Church, treating the Church in the process as a marginal attraction in comparison with the world?

It is hard to reign all of that in once it has taken on a life of its own and we are (hopelessly) caught up into it. If we can practice a form of “critical conformity” in which we carefully assess and discern our cumulative choices, then we can truly be in the world, but free of the world to a meaningful degree. This becomes possible when we “renew our minds” by “conforming” them to the image of Christ. To conform to the “mind of Christ” is to avoid conforming to “this world” in a conscious and deliberate manner. An internal non-conformity slowly develops that sharpens our vision concerning the relationship between the Church and the fallen world.

The Apostle Paul knew the cost of “conforming to this world” to the formation of a Christian conscience and a position of freedom in regards to the fallen world. His admonition remains timeless as we struggle with our choices.

Fr Steven

Tuesday, July 26, 2011

The Pastoral Theology of the Apostle Paul

Dear Parish Faithful & Friends in Christ,


Based on the circumstances of his apostolic ministry, St. Paul created and developed a pastoral theology which has hardly been rivaled in the entire history of the Church. The Apostle Paul’s epistles can never be reduced to theological treatises that reveal timeless truths unrelated to the circumstances, issues, and pastoral concerns that prompted the writing of any given epistle in the first place. A true pastor must guide, protect, teach, encourage and admonish his flock when necessary, and St. Paul was very conscious of this. In his epistles he was always responding to situations that demanded an application of the theological truths so forcefully and profoundly revealed in his writings. Thus, in addition to his divinely-appointed role as an apostle, St. Paul was also a pastor – or director of souls; and a theologian – one who discovered words “appropriate to God,” so as to reveal something meaningful concerning God and God’s dispensation toward the world. In fact, we would claim that he was “inspired” by the Holy Spirit to do this. Hence, his epistles are now an integral part of the inspired New Testament canon of sacred Scripture.

Even though doctrinal and pastoral concerns are often intertwined in his epistles, we do find a pattern that he follows by giving pastoral guidance and/or catechetical instruction following the early theological sections of his epistles. His First Epistle to the Thessalonians is a good example, for it is in chs. 4-5 that we find his exhortations after a more opening doctrinal section. This is true about the Apostle Paul’s Epistle to the Romans even though he was not responsible for establishing the local church in the imperial capital. After the theological or doctrinal section of this great epistle in ch. 1-11, the Apostle adds further chapters of pastoral direction that render that very theology accessible and applicable to “real-life” situations, or at least to the Christian life conceived in its over-all realization in the world. As a little-known text put it simply in the patristic era: “Up to this point Paul has expounded doctrine. Now he goes on to teach morals.” As an example: When the Apostle overwhelms us with a revealed truth such as this – But God shows his love for us in that while we were yet sinners, Christ died for us” (ROM. 5:8, a verse we can describe as his version of JN. 3:16) - we can be assured that he will eventually point out to us just how profound of a meaning this truth will have in our lives as Christians. Perhaps this following passage reveals how that truth about God can be embodied in a way of life that would mark a genuine Christian who is a true disciple of the Lord Jesus Christ:

Let love be genuine; hate what is evil, hold fast to what is good; love one another with brotherly affection; outdo one another in showing honor. Never flag in zeal, be aglow with the Spirit, serve the Lord. Rejoice in your hope, be patient in tribulation, be constant in prayer. Contribute to the needs of the saints, practice hospitality (ROM 12:9-13).

It is fascinating just how closely these words of the Apostle reflect the teachings of Christ which he has so admirably absorbed and assumed, though not having seen or heard Christ in His earthly ministry.

Another “meditation” later in the week will continue to draw on the Apostle Paul’s Epistle to the Romans, especially from ch. 12, and his creative use of a pastoral theology. I will focus initially on St. Paul’s well-known admonition: “Do not be conformed to this world but be transformed by the renewal of your mind …” (ROM. 12:2)

Fr Steven.

Saturday, July 23, 2011

To Believe and Confess

Dear Parish Faithful,

“For man believes with his heart and so is justified, and he confesses with his lips and so is saved.” (ROM. 10:10)

“And grant that with one mouth and one heart we may praise Thine all-honorable and majestic name …” (Liturgy of St. John Chrysostom)

According to our liturgical calendar, this year we read from the Apostle Paul’s Epistle to the Romans on all of the Sundays of July. Last Sunday, the designated passage was ROM. 10:1-10. This passage is found at the heart of the Apostle’s impassioned historical/theological reflections on the mystery of Israel’s unbelief in Jesus as the Messiah, and how this makes sense in God’s over-all design for both Jews and Gentiles (ROM. 9-11). St. Paul’s “heart’s desire and prayer to God for them (the Jews) is that they may be saved” (v. 1). However, my goal is much more modest than entering into that complex theme at the moment. I am simply concentrating on the Apostle’s understanding of how we express and maintain our faith in Christ. For in this passage, St. Paul is speaking about salvation in Christ - a salvation that is both expressed with the lips while also being embedded deep in the heart: “The word is near you, on your lips and in your heart (that is, the word of faith which we preach)” (v. 8). The Apostle then follows with a verse that could very well echo an early baptismal confession of faith on the part of the neophyte: “If you confess with your lips that Jesus is Lord and believe in your heart that God raised him from the dead, you will be saved” (v. 9). The candidate for baptism would publicly and openly confess, “Jesus is Lord;” and this would assume that in the heart of the candidate is the saving faith that God raised Jesus from the dead. Only such a confession of faith and heartfelt belief makes baptism meaningful. It is this confession of a faith that exists in the heart that now allows both Jews and Gentiles to receive the righteousness, and hence salvation, that comes from God: “For there is no distinction between Jew and Greek; the same Lord is Lord of all and bestows his riches upon all who call upon him” (ROM. 10:13).

From the very beginning of Christianity, there has always been a “creedal” dimension to faith in Christ. This began during the earthly ministry of Christ when both St. Peter and St. Martha essentially made the same confession that Jesus is the Messiah and Son of God. (MATT. 16:16; JN. 11:27) This reaches its climax in the post-resurrectional confession of faith made by the disciple Thomas: “My Lord and my God!” (JN. 20:28) All of the Church’s creeds – local or ecumenical – are basically expansions and elaborations of that basic Truth of the Gospel. And the early creeds of the Church were used initially during the baptisms of new believers, before they entered into the Liturgy. Even the Nicene Creed was based on an earlier baptismal creed that was enlarged so as to become the Church’s most succinct expression of faith in the Holy Trinity and the Person of Christ. And, of course, we openly recite the Creed as a body following this liturgical “directive” from the priest: “Let us love one another, that with one mind we may confess.” This “confession” is an open and public vocalization of the full text of the Creed; this, in turn, being the content of what we claim to “believe.” It should be hard to imagine “saying” the Nicene Creed on a weekly basis without believing in the heart that what is being confessed is the Truth about God.

The “lips” and the “heart” represent the “outer” and “inner” and aspects of the human person in his or her totality. There exists a wholeness and over-all integrity to the Christian believer that maintains a balance between the two. Only such a person could say with the same conviction as the psalmist: “O Lord, open Thou my lips, and my mouth will show forth Thy praise.” If the lips express what is in the heart then the sincerity, conviction and commitment implicit in such a confession of Christian faith may serve to convince – even convict? – others who hear it. And this may begin within an existing Christian community. Today, we use rather bland terms such as “a person of faith,” when we could be describing a dynamic, deeply committed and passionate human “incarnation” of “the faith once and for all delivered to the saints” (JUDE 3). Such a “person of faith” can move others within a community to either question or seek to strengthen their own faith. Whether this serves to “inspire” or “convict,” such a presence will ultimately serve to build up the local community.

The unattractive and/or unexamined alternative of lacking an inner connection between the outward confession of faith and belief in the heart can result in a kind of “spiritual schizophrenia” that can seriously undermine or perhaps destroy a faith that once existed in a person. This is much more serious than the common notions of hypocrisy and (mindless) conformity. “Do I actually believe what I confess to in church?” may be the type of question that we need to periodically ask ourselves in the spirit of “self-examination” that the Apostle Paul refers to elsewhere in his epistles. More specifically: Do I believe in my heart that “Jesus is Lord,” as I confess that with my lips? Or again: Do I believe “that God raised him from the dead” as I confess that with my lips? We should not fear that such questions allow “doubt” to creep in. Rather, avoidance of such questions may very well indicate the presence of doubt already acting in a corrosive manner. When we pray in faith we ask God to further strengthen our faith, thus acknowledging the many temptations that assail our faith and our own weaknesses that threaten our faith. Yet, the faith that we pray for in humility can “overcome the world!”

It is a joy to be able to openly confess our faith within our liturgical assemblies. This is a natural expression of the belief/faith that is welling up in the hearts. We have the assurance of the Apostle Paul: “The Scripture says, ‘No one who believes in him will be put to shame’ " (ROM. 10:11; IS. 28:16). And further the Apostle cites the prophet Joel who declared: “Every one who calls upon the name of the Lord will be saved” (ROM. 10:13; JOEL 2:32) . These are powerful words when spoken and assimilated with faith in our hearts.

Fr. Steven

Thursday, July 7, 2011

To Get Roused and Warmed

Dear Parish Faithful,

Our parish is currently preoccupied with the Apostle Paul’s Epistle to the Romans, and this is for two basic reasons: 1) On the Church’s liturgical lectionary it is the Epistle appointed to be read during the month of July; and 2) we are reading and studying this Epistle together in our Summer Bible Study. Of course, you can be preoccupied with anything but the Epistle to the Romans, but that choice would only further intensify the spiritual drought that threatens to keep us “thirsty” through the summer months of the liturgical year. The many distractions that we turn to for amusement cannot fill the deeper vacuum that ever-widens when not being “filled” by God. Those distractions seem to be an odd choice – and a poor set of substitutes - when the Church delivers the Epistle to us and only asks for our attention.

At the beginning of his series of great homilies on Romans, St. John Chrysostom said the following:

As I keep hearing the Epistles of the blessed Paul read, and that twice every week, and often three or four times … gladly do I enjoy the spiritual trumpet, and get roused and warmed with desire at recognizing the voice so dear to me, and seem to fancy him all but present to my sight, and behold him conversing with me…

Is it possible for a contemporary Orthodox Christian to “get roused and warmed” by hearing or reading the Apostle Paul’s Epistle to the Romans as did the great St. John? Certainly! For it is the same Gospel we hear today as was preached to the recipients of the Epistle in Rome centuries ago. And that Gospel remains “the power of God for salvation to every one who has faith …” (ROM. 1:16). The question is rather: How can an Orthodox Christian not “get roused and warmed” when hearing the Apostle Paul declare:

"While we were yet helpless, at the right time Christ died for the ungodly. Why, one will hardly die for a righteous man – though perhaps for a good man one will dare even to die. But God shows his love for us in that while we were yet sinners Christ died for us. Since, therefore, we are now justified by his blood, much more shall we be saved by him from the wrath of God. For if while we were enemies we were reconciled to God by the death of his Son, much more, now that we are reconciled, shall we be saved to his life. Not only so, but we also rejoice in God through our Lord Jesus Christ, through whom we have now received our reconciliation" (ROM. 5:6-11).

What has happened to the Orthodox Christian over time who can hear that text and remain indifferent, unmoved, or who restlessly seeks his/her relief from the burdens of life elsewhere and essentially outside of the Gospel? Is that who St. John is forced to address when he continues in his introductory homily on Romans?:

But I grieve and am pained, that all people do not know this man, as much as they ought to know him; but some are so far ignorant of him, as not even to know for certainty the number of his Epistles. And this comes not from incapacity, but of there not having the wish to be continually conversing with this blessed man. For it is not through any natural readiness and sharpness of wit that even I am acquainted with as much as I do know, if I do know anything, but owing to a continual cleaving to the man, and an earnest affection towards him.

After lamenting the fact that many of his flock were ignorant of the Apostle Paul, St. John goes on to speak more generally of the manifold dangers that ignorance of the Scriptures can lead to:

For from this it is that our countless evils have arisen – from ignorance of the Scriptures; from this that the plague of heresies has broken out; from this that there are negligent lives; from this labors without advantage.

To do his pastoral best to familiarize his flock with “this man” – the Apostle Paul – St. John Chrysostom would bring his flock together during the week in order to teach them the Scriptures, through his homilies and catechetical instruction. For St. John was a tireless and relentless advocate of the Scriptures, that no amount of “busyness” should keep us from reading and studying with care. Keeping things simple and to the point, St. John said that it was a matter of “interest.” He was always encouraged by, and had much praise for, the many who responded with interest and attended these gatherings.

Following in the footsteps of St. John Chrysostom, we have our own parish Bible Study in which we are reading and studying the Epistle to the Romans. We will meet this evening at 7:30 p.m. in the church library. All who are “interested” are encouraged to participate.

Fr Steven