Saturday, August 23, 2008

The 8th Sunday of Pentecost

August 3, 2008

The 8th Sunday of Pentecost

You know the gospels were written down for a specific purpose. It wasn’t because the Church didn’t know the story. The gospel was orally transmitted, held, memorized, repeated. But at a certain point in the Church’s history, when it was realized that the apostles would not be around forever, and as the Church gradually developed its forms of worship in the first century, it was felt necessary to have a new testament Torah to be read at the Divine Liturgy that would fulfill the Old Testament Torah that were read each day in the Hebrew Synagogue or on certain days of the week – Tuesday, Thursday and Saturday. And so the Church put together from the memoirs of the apostles, the four Gospels and the fifth gospel which is the Acts of the Holy and Pure Apostles, which is, if you will, the Deuteronomy of the New Testament Torah, specifically to be read at the liturgy. That’s why, when Daniella went to school and they sang songs about the Bible, she said she loved the Bible very much and the people at her protestant school liked the bible very much, and I said that it’s very nice of us to let them use our Bible.

We do because it was put together to be used by the Church as a liturgical text. Not everything that Jesus did or said could possibly be written there. St. John said, “The world could not contain the books that would be written.” But the apostles’ epistles – the letters of the apostles – are so much different we know that the Gospel of St. Mark is the memoirs of St. Peter as he preached in Rome, and Matthew recalled and wrote what he had been aware of as he had been one of the 12, that St. Luke used recollections of those who had been present as well as of our Lady in writing his gospel, and John late in his life, after having done perhaps 2 or 3 redactions of his gospel, finally gave us the gospel that is figured by the eagle that flies above and looks down on everything.

But the epistles, the letters, were written as circumstances arose. They were written to deal with situations that developed in the Church. And it may be hard for us to think this way, but whereas the Gospels didn’t even begin to come into existence till the 6th decade of the Christian century, the epistles began to be written some 20-25 years earlier. And on the one hand, we’re very grateful that we have these letters of the apostles because they teach us practically how to deal with circumstances that arise in the Church on the basis of the advice that the apostles, especially St. Paul, gave to the Church as they encountered their trials and as they experienced their difficulties.

We know that St. Paul, in his instructions, differentiated: some things he would say, “This is from the Lord” meaning, this is what Christ taught as absolutely commanded; on the other hand he would say, “This is not from the Lord, this is from me, it is my practice,” and that meant that these were things that St. Paul thought were best and that he offered on good authority, but did not have rabbinical authority behind them, rather the power of his own reflections on God.

And there is perhaps, no church that shows the difficulties that the early Christians encountered more than the church in Corinth. Corinth was a place where everything in the world came: all that was good, and beautiful, and wise, and all that was ugly, and nasty, and perverse. It was the San Francisco of the ancient world. St. Paul had come to Corinth and he had made converts there; he remained a while and then went on to continue his apostolic work. But the Corinthians gave him fits; they immediately became arrogant and they became proud, and they became divided. They started to choose sides and to engage in feuds.

One would say, “I speak on the authority of Paul.”

Another would say, “Oh, I’m a partisan of Cephas, of Simon Peter.”

Another would say, “I’m just a Christian, I belong to the party of Christ.”

And then they would argue about how things ought to be done, or how things ought to be staged, or how people ought to live.

There were those who said, “We should follow the Jewish Law because there’s a whole lot of commandments there and if we do them we can earn a more likely salvation.”

And others who said, “Oh no, there’s no law at all. In fact, we can do whatever we want to, because once saved always saved. There’s no danger of our being lost, so let’s just enjoy this life in anticipation of the life to come.”

Legalists and gaulless, greedy people, people who would show up for a church supper, bring their own meal with them and then put out their caviar and roast beef and watch their neighbor sitting next to them without so much as a crust of bread. Perhaps they supposed that this is what they deserved; that that person did deserve it.

And when St. Paul criticized them, they dared to say, “Who does he think he is anyway?” They challenged his authority.

Some even said, “You know, Paul wasn’t one of the apostles. He wasn’t one of the 11, he wasn’t even the one chosen to replace Judas. He just says he’s an apostle, but he wasn’t really an apostle like those other apostles. And so, we don’t really have to listen to what he said.”

And other people said, “Have you ever heard him preach? Why, when he preaches, his oratory is weak. He’s not a great speaker, a powerful deliverer. He’s not a _____, he can’t look proud. In fact, we like to hear other people preach better than him. Listen when he comes. He may sound brave in his letters, but he’s really weak in his oratory.”

There was even a suggestion, when Paul had taken up a collection to deliver to the church in Jerusalem - because a famine had placed the people there in jeopardy, so he suggested that from all the churches money should be sent to support the church there, especially the widows and the orphans – he was really going to divert that money into his own bank account, that he was really going to steal it. Some people suggested that. In one place, Paul speaks of himself as a prisoner at the end of a procession.

He says, “You know how the Romans - when they conquer people – they have a triumphant procession through the city and the conquering general rides in a chariot and behind his chariot are chained captives and they’re brought to the city to be slain in the arena,” he says, “ I think that we apostles are like captives chained behind a chariot condemned to die.”

In fact he referred to himself and the other apostles as the “off-scouring of the universe.” Depending on how you translate, it could mean, either what you scrub off of a man or what you flush down a toilet. But this is how they felt they were being treated. And you understand, you know those who think about the problems the church has today – not so much this church as the universal Church in many places and in general – that when we look at these, we say, “Oh for the good old days, for that old time religion when everybody was holy and pious.” But in St. Paul’s day it wasn’t that way. People were fighting, feuding, arguing; calling their leaders names, disrespecting them, failing to show charity, justifying themselves by their works, or justifying their lack of morality by their supposed purity. It was a rough time. But we must remember this: We proclaim that we believe in one, holy, catholic, and apostolic church, and those four words – one, holy, catholic, and apostolic – are a pretty good definition of the word “Orthodox” – that Church which worships in the right way and believes the right things. And if the Church herself is without flaw, or blemish, or any such thing – the pure Bride of Christ – that evil does not adhere to the Church; that it is the people of Christ who in their weakness, their frailty, their self indulgence, bring evil into the Church. They bring in their selfishness and their self-justifications; they bring in their greed and their petty anger and quarrels, their divisiveness, their judgments. But these are brought by all the other sins that we carry to the foot of the cross, not so we can stand their and boast in them, but so they can be laid down at the feet of Christ so they also can be washed away. Saint Paul dealing with his churches was a father dealing with his children. And as he dealt with them, he didn’t abandon them; he didn’t pass them off; he didn’t condemn them to Hell.

Even one man in Corinth whom he had to excommunicate – he says of that man, “I am handing his body over to Satan with the prayer with his soul may be saved.”

In other words, the man, looking at himself now standing outside of the church, might flee back into the arms of salvation and attain salvation. And so the man did repent, and he undid the evil he was doing. Do you know what to the people of Corinth said?

They said,“Who does he think he is to come back to church? Why, Paul excommunicated him; he’s a bad man.”

Paul said, “You welcome him back and you forgive him, for I, absent in body but present in spirit, have forgiven him.”

Now this church was a divine institution filled with defective and fallible human beings, just as the body of Christ is today.

Brothers and sisters, if we persevere in grace; if we struggle to let God rule our hearts, our communities, our communal life, then such power will exist within each parish, within each jurisdiction, within each national church, within the whole Orthodox Church throughout the world, then it will be irresistible. Then we will not have to exert great effort to bring the nations to Christ; but that the light of our good works shining before men will be seen like a city on a hilltop and that men seeing, they will be drawn to it from East and West, from North and South; and drawn to it they will glorify the Father who is in heaven. So we thank we God for the defectiveness of the Corinthians because it is a paradigm of our own defectiveness. But we thank God for the lessons that St. Paul taught them because they are taught to us. Strive, brethren, to be of one heart and one mind.

Last week, he told us to bear one another’s burdens – the strong ought to act on behalf of the weak. That those who have troubles ought to be borne on the shoulders of those who have fewer troubles. Why? Because the icon of the church, its image, that which is the sacrament of the church, is that it is the body of Christ, both universally and individually. We are members, organs of that body, and when one organ suffers, the whole body suffers; when one member is injured, the whole body is injured; when one member is weaken, the whole body is weakened. That, like the immune system of the human body, the ability of the body of Christ to heal itself through the mysteries of confession, of holy communion, through the mysteries of warm tears of repentance, to bring health and restoration not only to the individual members but to the whole body. To those who are living and those who have gone on before us, we pray and offer sacrifices.

So brethren, let their not be divisions among us: neither of heart, or of mind, or of faith. Does that mean that everybody in the whole church has to be somebody who you relate to and identify with and have warm fuzzy feelings toward all the time? No it doesn’t. Feelings are like all the other passions – they are deceptive, they are delusional, they become idols. It does mean you have to care about everyone else. Some of the members of the body you will walk with holding hands, embracing, carrying or being carried by. Others will simply walk behind you. But it is that we walk the same direction, that we follow the same pillar of cloud by day and pillar of fire by night, that we are being led to the same kingdom, that we are not being stumbling blocks, hazards, or scandals for one another that makes us all mutually supportive, and mutually united. That as one community we may enter into the kingdom that Christ promises.

So to Him that is able to bring us to one mind and one heart, through the prayers of His holy apostles, be glory and dominion now and ever and unto ages of ages.

In the name of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit, Glory to Jesus Christ! Glory forever!

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