Friday, September 25, 2015

Always Seeking the Lost Sheep

Dear Parish Faithful,

"If ninety-nine of us are good and saintly but one of our brothers or sisters is far from our solace and support, in sin and darkness, be sure that God is not among us ninety-nine, but he has gone to find our brother whom we have lost and forgotten."  —St. Nikolai Velimirovich (+1956)
St Silouan the Athonite (Sept 24)

These deeply Gospel-inspired words are clearly based on Christ's short parable, that of the Lost Sheep, found in LK. 15:3-7.  This is the first of three parables that the Lord directs against the Pharisees who objected to Christ sharing table fellowship with "tax collectors and sinners."  This parable is followed by that of the Lost Coin (15:8-10); and the incomparable Prodigal Son (15:11-32). 

These three parables all share one common theme:  God will seek out the lost at all costs.  From God's perspective:  No one is left behind.  From our human perspective, to live among the "righteous" and to avoid sinners is not only easy, but something to be sought after.  Yet, that is not how life is ordered - now or at anytime in the past. 

Although loved by God, that one brother or sister lost in sin and darkness may today be described as one of our (many?) enemies.  And these "enemies" come in various forms and represent various things that are unlikeable or even distasteful to us today:  A member of a political party that we do not trust or hardly ever agree with on any given issue; a proponent of an ideology that we are convinced is warped and dangerous; an adherent of a  religion with beliefs and practices that we cannot comprehend and which "on the inside" we fear and detest. 

The sin and darkness we find in the other person can be real or it can be imaginary, simply a result of our perspective, if not prejudice.  Then again, there are many human beings who are clearly lost in "sin and darkness."  Such human beings do things that are both horrible and harmful.  They must be avoided and they must be stopped from their evil activities. Such is life in a world in which  good and evil co-exist.

Yet, if St. Nikolai is properly interpreting Christ's parable, then we must understand that according to the Lord, such persons are still loved by God "who desires that all men be saved and to come to the knowledge of the truth" (I TIM. 2:4).  But they are still loved even if they do not come to this "knowledge of the truth," tragic as as that may prove to be. 

And further, if St. Nikolai is correct, then what he says is not sentimental, but an expression of the boundless love of God that knows no limits:  "For God so loved the world, that he gave his only-begotten Son so that those who believe in him should not perish, but have eternal life" (JN. 3:16).  There is no sentimentality in the Cross, so when the Father "gave" his Son to the world that he loved, that meant that Christ had to embrace the Cross to fully reveal God's love for us.  "You were bought with a price" the Apostle Paul reminds us.

The words of St. Nikolai are closely related to a passage from the new book of Frederica Mathewes-Green, Welcome to the Orthodox Church.  In fact, I discovered the above passage from St. Nikolai in her book, immediately following what she wrote on the subject of God's love:

"The idea is to love the world, even though it hates you.  That is what Christ did, and what he can do in you. Progress in the spiritual life is literally growth in communion and union with Christ, and he has loved every human being in the whole history of the world."  

This teaching was beautifully confirmed by St. Silouan of Mt. Athos, a fairly-recently glorified/canonized saint of the Church who died in 1938.  Living a life of silence and prayer on Mt. Athos - the holy mountain - St. Silouan, in his teaching, said the following:

"The soul cannot know peace unless she prays for her enemies."

"The Lord taught me to love my enemies.  Without the grace of God we cannot love our enemies. Only the Holy Spirit teaches love, and then even devils arouse our pity because they have fallen from good, and lost humility in God."

"If you will pray for your enemies, peace will come to you; but when you can love your enemies - know that a great measure of the grace of God dwells in you, though I do not say perfect grace as yet, but sufficient for salvation.  Whereas if you revile your enemies, it means there is an evil spirit living in you and bringing evil thoughts into your heart, for, in the words of the Lord, "Out of your heart proceed evil thoughts" or good thoughts."

"If you cannot love, then at least do not revile or curse your enemies, and things will already be better, but if a man curse and abuse his enemies, it is plain that an evil spirit lives in him, and if he does not repent, when he dies he will go to the place where evil spirits dwell.  May the Lord preserve every soul from such adversity!"

"Thus our thought must be that all should be saved.  The soul sorrows for her enemies and prays for them because they have strayed from the truth and their faces are set towards hell. That is love for our enemies.  When Judas bethought him to betray the Lord, the Lord was stirred to pity and showed him what he was doing.  Thus must we, too, be gentle with those who err and stray, and we shall be saved by God's mercy."

From St. Silouan the Athonite by Archimandrite Sophrony, p. 376-378

 These are "hard sayings," indeed.  In fact, such teaching may seem unrealistic within the chaotic and dangerous world in which we live. Yet the Gospel is always leading us toward a "higher way," one experienced by the saints - flesh and blood human beings such as we are - and thus "possible" even though it may seem to be "impossible." 

Being a Christian is about striving toward that high calling of the Gospel. Keeping in mind that God will always seek the lost sheep may prove to lead us along that same path.

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