Sunday, November 26, 2006

The Church and Reconciliation to God in Christ Jesus

[Note: This Sunday the passage below from Ephesians was on the lectionary - I am reposting this article, written last year on the subject, in slightly edited and expanded form]

"But now in Christ Jesus, you who once were far off have been brought near by the blood of Christ. For He Himself is our peace, and has made both [Jew and Gentile] one and has broken down the middle wall of separation, having abolished in His flesh, the enmity, that is, the law of commandments contained in ordinances, so as to create in Himself one new man from the two, thus making peace; and that he might reconcile them both to God in one Body, through the cross, thereby putting to death the enmity. And he came and preached peace to those who were near and those who were far off, for through Him we both have access by one Spirit to the Father."

Ephesians 2:13-18

In this little paragraph of St. Paul, we see the Gospel contained in a compact statement of powerful words and images.

St. Paul, speaking to Gentile (that is, non-Jew) Christians, explains the mystery of the new covenant in relation to Judaism (the old covenant), the fulfillment of the moral law, and the unity of the Church in Jesus, the Messiah or Anointed One (Christus in Greek) of God foretold of old.

“But now in Christ Jesus” the Gentiles (that is, everyone else not a part of the Jewish covenant community) have been brought near. Near to what?

Near to the presence of God.

St. Paul says elsewhere: “[I]n the dispensation of the fullness of the times He [the Father] might gather together in one all things in Christ, both which are in heaven and which are on earth – in Him.” Ephesians 1:10. “In Him also we have obtained an inheritance . . . “ Ephesians 1:11. “And He [the Father] put all things under His [Christ’s] feet, and gave Him to be head over all things to the Church, which is His body, the fullness of Him who fills all in all.” Ephesians 1:22-23.

Thus Jesus brings all near to the Presence of God by gathering all of creation, and mankind specifically, in Himself, by uniting us to his Body which is the mystery of the Church, of which Christ is the Head.

How is this accomplished?

The first sentence tells us how we are drawn near: by the blood of Christ. Jew and non-Jew are now both sanctified and dare to approach the inapproachable Glory of God by the blood of the Word of God made flesh.

In the old covenant, the temple was divided into several sections, including a Court of the Gentiles, and inner areas including the Holy of Holies, wherein the “mercy seat” or “judgment seat” of God rested and which only the Jewish High Priest would enter after proper purification and with blood of a sacrificial victim in order to atone or reconcile the covenant people to God. Thus, this lone Jewish representative alone would dare to draw near to the Presence, but the non-Jews were left “far off” in their outer court.

But what does this mean to us? The law is clear: the two great commandments are these: “thou shalt love the Lord thy God with all thy heart, with all thy soul, and with all thy strength, and with all thy mind,” and second “you shall love your neighbor as yourself.”

The Old Covenant prophet Malachi prophesied these words: “He hath shown thee, O Man, what is good and what the Lord requires of thee. But to do justly, and to love mercy, and to walk humbly with thy God.” Malachi 6:8.

King David, first King of the Jewish nation, prophesied: “For hadst thou desired sacrifice, I would have given it thee [O God]: thou delightest not in burnt offerings. The sacrifices to God are a contrite spirit: a contrite and humble heart, O God, thou wilt not despise.” Psalm 50 (as numbered according to the Septuagint).

Jesus is the acceptable sacrifice, the truly contrite spirit, the truly humble man. "He humbled Himself and became obedient to the point of death, even the death of the cross." Philippians 2:8.

Jesus Christ, our peace, fulfills the second commandment by bringing the non-Jew and the Jew together as one in reconciliation of all mankind in Him, uniting them as do believe and obey Him to his Body, the Church, through his blood. In his ultimate act of love He lay down his life and lavished and lavishes the grace of God even upon his bitterest enemies.

We are joined to and in Him through sharing in his death and resurrection in the waters of baptism, in the anointing of chrismation, and are sustained in Him through his flesh and blood in the sacrament of the Eucharist, the heavenly supper. Unlike ordinary food and drink, which is assumed into my body and becomes my body, this is true meat and drink, and I am assumed in Him, in the Life itself. “He who eats My flesh and drinks My blood abides in Me and I in him.” John 6:56. Thus, in the Eucharist we are joined as one Body, that is, joined to Christ, by his blood.

How does Christ abolish in His flesh the enmity between mankind [which St. Paul explains are these very commandments which are summed up in the two Great Commandments]? He ‘abolishes’ them by fulfilling them fully in his atoning act of the incarnation, ministry, crucifixion and resurrection, thereby giving us his flesh and his blood, uniting us in Him into one new man, Himself, so that we may worship the Father in Spirit and in Truth – which as Jesus taught, is Himself: “I am the Way, the Truth, and the Life; no one can come to the Father except by me.”

As we partake of the precious body and blood we are drawn near. The very life of Him is taken into us and we are caught up into him, for as St. Paul says: “in Him we live and move and have our being.” Acts 17:28. He is existence.

Here is the only world peace, the only place where mankind can and must cease his wars, his hatreds, his envies, his murders. Since our bretheren are members of the Body, if we hate our bretheren, we are hating the Body of Christ Himself.

Now having reconciled us to one another by joining us to His Body, the Church, the fullness of Him who fills all in all, he reconciles us “to God in one Body, through the cross, thereby putting to death the enmity” with God.

And how did our Lord accomplish this thing which no Jewish High Priest ever could do? He took our humanity to himself (in the words of the Creed: He came down from heaven, and was incarnate of the Holy Spirit and the virgin Mary and became man”) and fulfilled the first commandment as well. God became man that men might become 'gods.'

While St. John can say rightly: “For God so loved the world that He gave his only-begotten Son; that whosoever might believe on Him should not perish, but have everlasting life,” can we not also rightly say: “For Jesus Christ so loved the Father” that he was obedient unto death, even death on the cross; that all his heart, all his soul, all his mind, and all his strength were devoted to the love of the Father until his last breath?

Thus, in Christ Jesus, and only in Christ Jesus can I really fulfill the greatest commandment and be reconciled to God. By trampling down death with his own death, in complete fulfillment of the law, Christ allows me to fulfill the law in Him inasmuch as I am willing to die to self and it is Christ who lives in me. Thus he liberates me and destroys both the separation and enmity between God and me, and between me and my fellow, by uniting us into His Body.

"Therefore, bretheren, having boldness to enter the Holiest by the blood of Jesus, by a new and living way which He consecrated for us, through the veil, that is, His flesh, and having a High Priest over the house of God, let us draw near with a true heart in full assurance of faith, having our hearts sprinkled from an evil conscience and our bodies washed with pure water." Hebrews 10:19-22.

It is for us to open our hearts and lay hold of this gift by being united to the Body, His Body, the Church. Jesus says: “Behold, I stand and the door and knock; if any man hear my voice and open the door and I will come into him and sup with him, and he with Me.” Revelation 3:20. Let us say: “Even so, come, Lord Jesus.”

Tuesday, November 21, 2006

The Good News

34فَفَتَحَ بُطْرُسُ فَاهُ وَقَالَ:«بِالْحَقِّ أَنَا أَجِدُ أَنَّ اللهَ لاَ يَقْبَلُ الْوُجُوهَ. 35بَلْ فِي كُلِّ أُمَّةٍ، الَّذِي يَتَّقِيهِ وَيَصْنَعُ الْبِرَّ مَقْبُولٌ عِنْدَهُ. 36الْكَلِمَةُ الَّتِي أَرْسَلَهَا إِلَى بَنِي إِسْرَائِيلَ يُبَشِّرُ بِالسَّلاَمِ بِيَسُوعَ الْمَسِيحِ. هذَا هُوَ رَبُّ الْكُلِّ. 37أَنْتُمْ تَعْلَمُونَ الأَمْرَ الَّذِي صَارَ فِي كُلِّ الْيَهُودِيَّةِ مُبْتَدِئًا مِنَ الْجَلِيلِ، بَعْدَ الْمَعْمُودِيَّةِ الَّتِي كَرَزَ بِهَا يُوحَنَّا. 38يَسُوعُ الَّذِي مِنَ النَّاصِرَةِ كَيْفَ مَسَحَهُ اللهُ بِالرُّوحِ الْقُدُسِ وَالْقُوَّةِ، الَّذِي جَالَ يَصْنَعُ خَيْرًا وَيَشْفِي جَمِيعَ الْمُتَسَلِّطِ عَلَيْهِمْ إِبْلِيسُ، لأَنَّ اللهَ كَانَ مَعَهُ. 39وَنَحْنُ شُهُودٌ بِكُلِّ مَا فَعَلَ فِي كُورَةِ الْيَهُودِيَّةِ وَفِي أُورُشَلِيمَ. الَّذِي أَيْضًا قَتَلُوهُ مُعَلِّقِينَ إِيَّاهُ عَلَى خَشَبَةٍ. 40هذَا أَقَامَهُ اللهُ فِي الْيَوْمِ الثَّالِثِ، وَأَعْطَى أَنْ يَصِيرَ ظَاهِرًا، 41لَيْسَ لِجَمِيعِ الشَّعْبِ، بَلْ لِشُهُودٍ سَبَقَ اللهُ فَانْتَخَبَهُمْ. لَنَا نَحْنُ الَّذِينَ أَكَلْنَا وَشَرِبْنَا مَعَهُ بَعْدَ قِيَامَتِهِ مِنَ الأَمْوَاتِ. 42وَأَوْصَانَا أَنْ نَكْرِزَ لِلشَّعْبِ، وَنَشْهَدَ بِأَنَّ هذَا هُوَ الْمُعَيَّنُ مِنَ اللهِ دَيَّانًا لِلأَحْيَاءِ وَالأَمْوَاتِ. 43لَهُ يَشْهَدُ جَمِيعُ الأَنْبِيَاءِ أَنَّ كُلَّ مَنْ يُؤْمِنُ بِهِ يَنَالُ بِاسْمِهِ غُفْرَانَ الْخَطَايَا».

Acts of the Apostles, Ch. 10

Tuesday, November 07, 2006

Veteran's Day - USA

"And behold, one of those with Jesus stretched forth his hand and drew his sword, and struck the slave of the high priest, and took off his ear.

Then Jesus saith to him, 'Turn back thy sword to its place; for all those who take the sword shall perish by the sword. Or thinkest thou that I am not able now to call upon My Father, and He shall place beside Me more than twelve legions of angels? How then shall the Scriptures be fulfilled that thus it must come to be?'"

Gospel According to St. Matthew 26:51-54 (Holy Apostles Convent/Dormition Skete Translation from the Greek, 2000)

"For your lifeblood I will surely require a reckoning; of every beast I will require it and of man; of every man's brother I will require the life of man. Whoever sheds the blood of man, by man shall his blood be shed; for God made man in his own image."

Genesis 9:5-6

"For it has seemed good to the Holy Spirit and to us to lay upon you no greater burden than these necessary things: that you abstain from what has been sacrificed to idols and from blood and from what is strangled and from unchastity. If you keep yourselves from these, you will do well."

Acts 15:28-29

* * * * *

There has been considerable debate about the Orthodox position on war since 9/11, with the Orthodox Peace Fellowship statement and the response of Fr. Alexander Webster and others attempting to show that the Orthodox view of war is perhaps less cut-and-dried.

This is certainly beyond my level of scholarship, although I note that St. Procopius, Great Martyr George, the son of St. Photini, and many other saints were Roman soldiers. Christ, encountering the centurion, didn't seem to focus on his occupation, but his faith. St. John the Forerunner did not suggest the Roman soldiers abandon their service, but that they serve with purity of heart. The Church communicated the last Byzantine Emperor just before he mounted the walls to fall somewhere in battle. The Church honors as Saints rulers that, personally and by proxy, had rivers of blood on their hands on account of war.

The canons historically required three years penance and abstention from the sacrament after taking life in battle, yet the Church did not so categorically condemn war that the soldiers felt cut off from Her. King David killed his tens of thousands, yet remained beloved of God. Joshua led the Hebrews in a 'holy war' which included the usual ancient mode of reducing your enemies.

I also have been reading Maurice's Strategikos, a late 6th, early 7th century text attributed to the Byzantine Emperor Maurice concerning the conduct of war. In its pages one sees no particular angst about the soldiering profession. However, the text is dedicated to the Trinity (quite beautifully) and the first admonition of the writer to the General is to put one's trust in God, else all the clever military plans in the world are worthless.

Certainly there were fairly straightforward understandings about the relationship of war and the Christian life else the entire army and the Emperor would have been cut off from the life of the Church, or would have had to justify each and every march to the borders. We know from history that they were not so cut off, even if we do not have an authoritative treatise from Eastern fathers giving us a theory of 'just' war.

Often I find that one of the biggest issues with Christian soldiering in the pagan Roman era seemed to be the requirement to do obeisance to the cultus of the Emperor, rather than the profession of soldiering as such. It required a denial of Christ that was unacceptable to the Christian.

But enough of this - it is enough to say the assertions of the OPF are perhaps too simplistic and do not account for actual history. However, perhaps Augustinian and later western medieval developments of theories of 'just war' are also not truly Orthodox. Personally, I think that the abstraction of justifications on 'war' (or arguments against them) miss the mark in the same way as arguments about Christianity and other public social policy. Yes, they are important things to address - our position on public policy must be informed by our faith. Nevertheless, we need to move beyond the abstraction of 'war' to focus on what goes on at the level of the individual soldier as he or she interacts with others.

In my thoughts here, I wish to avoid the notion of 'holy war' for I think it an all too easy and dangerous place to go to justify killing in these late times. Additionally, we do not live in a theocratic state that could justifiably claim we are acting with 'one motive.'

Moreover, whatever the overarching moral justification for a particular war, it makes little difference to the children of men in the trenches. I suspect that even in Joshua's or David's armies, there were those who were psychopathic killers and those who approached things otherwise. Since it is problematic to discuss 'holy war,' let’s confine things to speaking only of the wars of men.

Having carried the sword of my nation and having met some of those who have had to face the depths of the evil capable in the human soul during warfare, I have these few thoughts for this upcoming Veteran's Day:

First, the wars of men are evil. There's no reason to nuance it by saying that murder and war are distinct concepts in the Old Testament, however true that may be. War involves the killing of people who have families, mothers, brothers, sisters and fathers, and causes untold suffering. Yes, we might be defending against an aggressor. We might be liberating captives or halting genocide. These might be necessary things. But that it had to come to such a state is still an evil.

By cutting off the life of someone, we take into our hands in some fashion the responsibility of having cut off further opportunity for the other to repent and return to God. We cannot answer for the other's state of soul at any particular time or place, but if we take into our hands by our will, in some small, the determination that it is their time to go, we are intruding on an area where we genuinely lack authority, it being God's realm to determine the number of another's days.

[Here I think of the exchange between Frodo and Gandalf in the Lord of the Rings:

Many that live deserve death. And some die that deserve life. Can you give it to them? Then be not too eager to deal out death in the name of justice, fearing for your own safety. Even the wise cannot see all ends.]

In war there may or may not be the kind of malice, or animosity or passion involved in intentional murder, and certainly the Law distinguished between intentional crimes and 'manslaughter' even in peace, even as our laws do today in this country. Nonetheless, none of this death and destruction can be deemed inherently 'good' and in line with how things ought to be. It is evil, that is -- it is a result of sin in the world.

Second, we need as Christians, in my opinion, to remember that we ALL have blood on our hands. Christ reminds us in stark words in the Sermon on the Mount that merely calling my brother a fool is a murder subject to judgment just as surely as spilling his blood. St. John tells us the same thing in 1 John 3:15: "Anyone who hates his brother is a murderer, and you know that no murderer has eternal life abiding in him." St. Paul was an accessory to unjust murder of St. Stephen, holding the cloaks of those who stoned the Martyr and approving of all that was done, before he was converted and became among the most prolific apostlic witnesses.

That is to say, we must take our veterans in hand, those that have suffered and have blood on their hands, and say 'I too, my brother, have blood on my hands for have I not hated by brother and thus have blood-guiltiness also? Let us pray to God together for his mercy and forgiveness, for his mercy is from everlasting to everlasting on those who fear Him and love Him and obey his commandments." Let us with gentleness treat them with love, in recognition of the suffering of the natural consequences of war.

Third, whatever we may think of the justification of war, whether it be self-defense, or any other concept concerning the taking of life, let us admit that the Kingdom of God will not come about, or be maintained, by such things (again in my opinion). Jesus chastises St. Peter for using the sword as much (or more) for his lack of faith as for the violence of the act itself. He lacks faith that Christ is who he says he is, and could, in a moment, eradicate all of his enemies, his creatures, to save himself, or prevent them from touching him if that were his will and the will of the Father. But his will was to go as a lamb to the slaughter.

Believing that we must protect the Church or 'Christian culture' (whatever that is) by war is a lack of faith. We protect (or destroy) houses, buildings, societies, wives, children, and the like in war, and such things may be justifiable in some cases, but this remains a human dimension, and has little to do with protecting the Church.

Finally, theories of 'just war' or 'justifiable war' are theories for nations, for kings and states. They are of little help to the individual in war who must, as in every other moment of life, examine his little choices and who will be called to account for them. It is into this realm that Christ comes and speaks to us where we are at: the fornicator, the adulterer, the liar, the murderer, the envious, the thief; the publican, the water-bearer, the fisherman, the tent-maker, the zealot, the tax collector, and the soldier.

There we can stand together with the scarred warrior, point to our Lord and say, come, let us worship and fall down before Him and beg his mercy.

A scene from Shakespeare's Henry V seems apropos to this subject

Enter three soldiers: JOHN BATES, ALEXANDER COURT,


Brother John Bates, is not that the morning which breaks yonder?


I think it be; but we have no great cause to desire the approach of day.


We see yonder the beginning of the day, but I think
we shall never see the end of it. Who goes there?


A friend.


Under what captain serve you?


Under Sir Thomas Erpingham.


A good old commander and a most kind gentleman.
I pray you, what thinks he of our estate?


Even as men wreck'd upon a sand, that look to be wash'd off the next tide.


He hath not told his thought to the King?


No; nor it is not meet he should. For though I speak it to you, I think the King is but a man as I am: the violet smells to him as it doth to me; the element shows to him as it doth to me; all his senses have but human conditions; his ceremonies laid
by, in his nakedness he appears but a man; and though his affections are higher mounted than ours, yet, when they stoop, they stoop with the like wing. Therefore, when he sees reason of fears, as we do, his fears, out of doubt, be of the same relish as ours are; yet, in reason, no man should possess him with any appearance of fear, lest he, by showing it, should dishearten his army.


He may show what outward courage he will; but I believe, as cold a night as 'tis, he could wish himself in Thames up to the neck; and so I would he were, and I by him, at all adventures, so we were quit here.


By my troth, I will speak my conscience of the King: I think he would not wish himself anywhere but where he is.


Then I would he were here alone; so should he be sure to be ransomed, and a many poor men's lives saved.


I dare say you love him not so ill to wish him here alone, howsoever you speak this, to feel other men's minds; methinks I could not die anywhere so contented as in the King's company, his cause being just and his quarrel honourable.


That's more than we know.


Ay, or more than we should seek after; for we know enough if we know we are the King's subjects. If his cause be wrong, our obedience to the King wipes the crime of it out of us.


But if the cause be not good, the King himself hath a heavy reckoning to make when all those legs and arms and heads, chopp'd off in a battle, shall join together at the latter day and cry all 'We died at such a place'- some swearing, some crying
for a surgeon, some upon their wives left poor behind them, some upon the debts they owe, some upon their children rawly left. I am afeard there are few die well that die in a battle; for how can they charitably dispose of anything when blood is their
argument? Now, if these men do not die well, it will be a black matter for the King that led them to it; who to disobey were against all proportion of subjection.


So, if a son that is by his father sent about merchandise do sinfully miscarry upon the sea, the imputation of his wickedness, by your rule, should be imposed upon his father that sent him; or if a servant, under his master's command transporting a sum of money, be assailed by robbers and die in many irreconcil'd iniquities, you may call the business of the master the author of the servant's damnation. But this is not so: the King is not bound to answer the particular endings of his soldiers, the father of his son, nor the master of his servant; for they purpose not their death when they purpose their services. Besides, there is no king, be his cause never so
spotless, if it come to the arbitrement of swords, can try it out with all unspotted soldiers: some peradventure have on them the guilt of premeditated and contrived murder; some, of beguiling virgins with the broken seals of perjury; some, making the wars their bulwark, that have before gored the gentle bosom of peace with pillage and robbery. Now, if these men have defeated the law and outrun native punishment, though they can outstrip men they have no wings to fly from God: war is His beadle, war is His vengeance; so that here men are punish'd for before-breach of the King's laws in now the King's quarrel. Where they feared the death they have borne life away; and where they would be safe they perish. Then if they die unprovided, no more is the King guilty of their damnation than he was before guilty of those impieties for the which they are now visited. Every subject's duty is the King's; but every subject's soul is his own. Therefore should every soldier in the wars do as every sick man in his bed- wash every mote out of his conscience; and dying so, death is to him advantage; or not dying, the time was blessedly lost wherein such preparation was gained; and in him that escapes it were not sin to think that, making God so free an offer, He let him outlive that day to see His greatness, and to teach others how they should prepare.


'Tis certain, every man that dies ill, the ill upon his own head- the King is not to answer for it.

- Henry V, Act 4 Scene 1

Friday, November 03, 2006

Mahmood's Blog Unblocked - But Many Others Blocked

Mahmood Al-Yousif's site was unblocked after he ventured down and had a meeting with the Ministry of Information officials. The nice thing about a small kingdom, as Mahmood attests on his 'blog, is that you can actually get to meet with high government officials sometimes.

Mahmood agreed to remove threads about Bandargate on his site as long as the gag order remained in effect. Given the nature of the information, that the cat is already out of the bag (the international press having covered it) and that Mahmood has a daughter to worry about, I think he made a prudent decision. It would be hard to make the case given the fuzzy language of the Bahraini constitution about freedoms of expression if he pushed it in the courts.

So . . . good for Mr. Mahmood Al-Yousif! But a whole host of other sites remain blocked, including Free Copts and some other Christian sites.

Pray for St. Mary's Orthodox Church in Bahrain, and St. Peter's Orthodox Church as well, that they do not become incidental targets of unrest.