Saturday, October 31, 2009

The Knowledge of God

I wish I could take credit for the essay "The Knowledge of God"; unfortunately, I cannot -- it is yet another example of the clear thinking and writing of Fr. Stephen Freeman of St. Anne's Orthodox Church in Oak Ridge, Tennessee. It is enough for me simply to point you toward it.

"THE KNOWLEDGE OF GOD" by Fr. Stephen Freeman

You will also find this essay in audio format at the "Glory To God" podcast page on Ancient Faith Radio.

"THE KNOWLEDGE OF GOD" podcast on Ancient Faith Radio

Friday, October 30, 2009

Feast of All Saints: A Service of Confirmation

Sermon: All Saints’ Day (1 November 2009)
A Service of Confirmation
(Josh 24:1-2a, 14-18/Ps 1/ Eph 1:15-23/Mt 16:24-27)

Blessed be God who has made us worthy to share in the inheritance of the saints in light. Amen.

This sermon is for Hayleigh and Mary Kathleen on the occasion of their Confirmation. But, you are welcome to “ eavesdrop” if you’d like.

Moses is dead. The devil wanted his body, but the archangel Michael contended with the devil and defeated him, not with sword or might or legion of angels but with the power of the word: “The Lord rebuke you!” is all Michael said (cf Jude 9), and that word spoken in the name of the Lord was enough. And now Moses lies buried in a valley in the land of Moab, in a grave known only to God (cf Dt 34:6).

Now, Joshua leads Israel – Joshua, chosen by God and ordained by Moses; Joshua, full of the spirit of wisdom. God has given Joshua his marching orders, literally:

[T]he LORD spoke to Joshua the son of Nun, Moses’ assistant, saying: 2 “Moses My servant is dead. Now therefore, arise, go over this Jordan, you and all this people, to the land which I am giving to them—the children of Israel. 3 Every place that the sole of your foot will tread upon I have given you, as I said to Moses. 4 From the wilderness and this Lebanon as far as the great river, the River Euphrates, all the land of the Hittites, and to the Great Sea toward the going down of the sun, shall be your territory. 5 No man shall be able to stand before you all the days of your life; as I was with Moses, so I will be with you. I will not leave you nor forsake you. 6 Be strong and of good courage, for to this people you shall divide as an inheritance the land which I swore to their fathers to give them. 7 Only be strong and very courageous, that you may observe to do according to all the law which Moses My servant commanded you; do not turn from it to the right hand or to the left, that you may prosper wherever you go. 8 This Book of the Law shall not depart from your mouth, but you shall meditate in it day and night, that you may observe to do according to all that is written in it. For then you will make your way prosperous, and then you will have good success. 9 Have I not commanded you? Be strong and of good courage; do not be afraid, nor be dismayed, for the LORD your God is with you wherever you go.”
10 Then Joshua commanded the officers of the people, saying, 11 “Pass through the camp and command the people, saying, ‘Prepare provisions for yourselves, for within three days you will cross over this Jordan, to go in to possess the land which the LORD your God is giving you to possess’” (Josh 1:1b-11, NKJV).

This much is clear: Israel’s possession of the land rests on the promises of God – promises past and promises future. “Every place that the sole of your foot will tread upon I have given you;” it “shall be your territory;” “no man shall be able to stand before you.” But this is equally clear: Israel’s possession of the land is contingent upon the strength, courage, and obedience of Joshua and all the people. “Be strong and of good courage;” do according to all that is written in the Law – then you will have good success. This is your salvation story writ large in the pages of Israel’s history, for the salvation that is ours in Christ Jesus rests solely upon the promises of God – promises past and future. But our salvation is also contingent upon our strength, courage, and obedience – all energized by the power and presence of the Holy Spirit in the lives of the faithful. So the church charges you this day as God charged Joshua that day: Be strong and very courageous. Keep the faith; do not turn from it to the right or to the left. God who has promised is faithful, and you will have good success.

There are yet many obstacles in Israel’s way: the Canaanites, Hittites, Hivites, Perizzites, Girgashites, Amorites, and Jebusites; walled and well-defended cities; treachery, seduction, disobedience, and faithlessness. But none of these obstacles are as immediate as the Jordan River. It is harvest time and the Jordan is at flood stage, overflowing all its banks. Israel is camped on the east bank; Jericho and the main body of Israel’s inheritance lie across the Jordan to the west. God commands the people to cross, a first test of their strength, courage, and obedience.

7 And the LORD said to Joshua, “This day I will begin to exalt you in the sight of all Israel, that they may know that, as I was with Moses, so I will be with you. 8 You shall command the priests who bear the ark of the covenant, saying, ‘When you have come to the edge of the water of the Jordan, you shall stand in the Jordan.’” 11 Behold, the ark of the covenant of the Lord of all the earth is crossing over before you into the Jordan. 12 Now therefore, take for yourselves twelve men from the tribes of Israel, one man from every tribe. 13 And it shall come to pass, as soon as the soles of the feet of the priests who bear the ark of the LORD, the Lord of all the earth, shall rest in the waters of the Jordan, that the waters of the Jordan shall be cut off, the waters that come down from upstream, and they shall stand as a heap.” 14 So it was, when the people set out from their camp to cross over the Jordan, with the priests bearing the ark of the covenant before the people, 15 and as those who bore the ark came to the Jordan, and the feet of the priests who bore the ark dipped in the edge of the water (for the Jordan overflows all its banks during the whole time of harvest), 16 that the waters which came down from upstream stood still, and rose in a heap very far away at Adam, the city that is beside Zaretan. So the waters that went down into the Sea of the Arabah, the Salt Sea, failed, and were cut off; and the people crossed over opposite Jericho. 17 Then the priests who bore the ark of the covenant of the LORD stood firm on dry ground in the midst of the Jordan; and all Israel crossed over on dry ground, until all the people had crossed completely over the Jordan (Josh 3:7-8, 11-17, NKJV).

This, too, is part of your salvation story: the mighty hand and outstretched arm of God miraculously led you down into, through, and out of the baptismal waters – from the old life (and death) of slavery and wilderness wondering to the new life of inheritance and kingdom.

Hayleigh and Mary Kathleen, this is your story. You stand today on the far side of the Jordan; you’ve come up out of the baptismal waters. Your inheritance as children of God lies before you. One thing remains yet to do before you go forward with strength and courage and obedience to seize it. Listen again to the ancient story.

1 And it came to pass, when all the people had completely crossed over the Jordan, that the LORD spoke to Joshua, saying: 2 “Take for yourselves twelve men from the people, one man from every tribe, 3 and command them, saying, ‘Take for yourselves twelve stones from here, out of the midst of the Jordan, from the place where the priests’ feet stood firm. You shall carry them over with you and leave them in the lodging place where you lodge tonight.’”4 Then Joshua called the twelve men whom he had appointed from the children of Israel, one man from every tribe; 5 and Joshua said to them: “Cross over before the ark of the LORD your God into the midst of the Jordan, and each one of you take up a stone on his shoulder, according to the number of the tribes of the children of Israel, 6 that this may be a sign among you when your children ask in time to come, saying, ‘What do these stones mean to you?’ 7 Then you shall answer them that the waters of the Jordan were cut off before the ark of the covenant of the LORD; when it crossed over the Jordan, the waters of the Jordan were cut off. And these stones shall be for a memorial to the children of Israel forever.” 8 And the children of Israel did so, just as Joshua commanded, and took up twelve stones from the midst of the Jordan, as the LORD had spoken to Joshua, according to the number of the tribes of the children of Israel, and carried them over with them to the place where they lodged, and laid them down there. 9 Then Joshua set up twelve stones in the midst of the Jordan, in the place where the feet of the priests who bore the ark of the covenant stood; and they are there to this day (Josh 4:1-9, NKJV).

Before Israel moves forward, Israel – at God’s command – sets up markers, stone altars of remembrance and thanksgiving. One stands in the middle of the Jordan River, under torrents of water, seen only by God: This is where we were, it proclaims. One stands on the far side of the Jordan, seen by all for generations to come: This is where God has brought us, it proclaims. Draw a line from the marker hidden in the Jordan through the marker on dry ground and it points westward, into the land of promise, toward Israel’s inheritance. Follow this line, God says; do not turn from it to the right or left. And be strong and of good courage, for I have promised to be with you wherever you go.

Mary Kathleen and Hayleigh, it is time for you to build a marker, an altar of remembrance and thanksgiving – not with stones, but with faith and vow and proclamation. That is the nature of Confirmation. It looks back toward your baptism – to your own Jordan, through which God brought you. In those waters you were born and named and sealed as Christ’s own forever. Never forget your baptism. When doubts arise, when temptations come, when sin besets you, look back to that marker and proclaim, “I have been baptized. I am God’s beloved.” And though that marker is hidden beneath the water, it is seen by God, for he knows his own.

But Confirmation does not just look back; it looks around and establishes a second marker. Since your baptism you have grown in wisdom and stature and favor with God and man. You have grown in faith and understanding and grace. It is time to build another marker to proclaim, “Here I stand, by God’s grace, ready to renew my covenant with him, ready to take my place fully with the people of God, ready to shoulder the yoke of Christ, ready to take up the cross and carry it daily, ready to press on toward the high calling of Christ to which God has called me.” Are you ready to build this marker? Are you ready to confirm, as young adults, those holy words spoken for you in your infancy or spoken by you in your childhood? The church believes you are. So, the church will ask you to speak this day for yourselves, by your own choosing, and by speaking, to bind yourselves solemnly to the common faith and life of the church, to the way and the truth and the life found only in Jesus. Understand that it is a difficult way, but a glorious one. Understand that on this way much will be lost, but even more will be gained. Understand that persecution comes to those who walk this way, but great blessing and reward as well. Are you ready to set the marker stones?

Draw a line from the marker of your baptism through the new marker of your confirmation – a line of faith – and it points forward into eternal life in the Kingdom of God – eternal life that begins even now. There are many obstacles ahead that you must overcome, many battles that you must fight. Your salvation rests on God’s promise, remember, but it also depends on your courage, strength, and obedience. There are passions you must battle, temptations you must overcome, sin you must forsake. You must make repentance your constant companion, prayer your trusted ally, the Word of God your sword, and the body and blood of Christ your heavenly food. And remember: you are not alone; you are never alone. Jesus promised that he would never abandon or forsake you, and his promise is good. The Holy Spirit has made of you his temple, dwelling in you and cleansing you of all impurity. And, you are surrounded by the great cloud of witnesses we honor this day: the saints, the great body of the faithful throughout all time past and stretching into the eternal future. They are watching you, cheering you on, strengthening you by their faithful testimony and through their prayers. And they are beckoning you to join that great fellowship of the holy ones of God. The line drawn from your baptism through your Confirmation leads you through the saints and beyond to the One whom they worship.

19 Now the people came up from the Jordan on the tenth day of the first month, and they camped in Gilgal on the east border of Jericho. 20 And those twelve stones which they took out of the Jordan, Joshua set up in Gilgal. 21 Then he spoke to the children of Israel, saying: “When your children ask their fathers in time to come, saying, ‘What are these stones?’ 22 then you shall let your children know, saying, ‘Israel crossed over this Jordan on dry land’; 23 for the LORD your God dried up the waters of the Jordan before you until you had crossed over, as the LORD your God did to the Red Sea, which He dried up before us until we had crossed over, 24 that all the peoples of the earth may know the hand of the LORD, that it is mighty, that you may fear the LORD your God forever” (Josh 4:19-24, NKJV).

Hayleigh and Mary Kathleen, place your twelve stones. Mary Kathleen and Hayleigh, place the marker of Confirmation firmly this day so that you may remember what the Lord has done for you, so that you may see the way ahead clearly, so that you and all the people whose lives you will touch may know the hand of the Lord, that it is mighty, and that you may fear the Lord your God forever. Amen.

Thursday, October 29, 2009

As We Forgive

Two years ago my community was shocked by the kidnap, rape, torture, and murder of a young couple. The brutality of the crimes was and is almost unimaginable to those who do not know the depth of darkness in the human spirit enslaved by our ancient foe. Since that time -- and particularly now as the defendants are being tried, convicted, and sentenced -- we have been confronted with issues of justice, vengeance, and forgiveness. I find an article by Kh. Frederica Mathewes-Green helpful -- a review of the doumentary film, As We Forgive, on the aftermath of the Rwandan genocide and the struggle for forgiveness.

As We Forgive

Friday, October 23, 2009

Benedict XVI and the Anglican Communion

Pope Benedict XVI is making overtures to disaffected Anglican clergy, suggesting that even married Anglican priests may be accepted into the Roman Catholic priesthood and may retain their Anglican rites and liturgy. While details are vague, even this hint is enough to delight and dismay various contingents in both expressions of the faith.

Fr. Chris Larimer, vicar of St. Stephen’s Anglican Church in Louisville, Kentucky and author of Adiaphora blogsite recently posted the following quote in response to the Vatican’s announcement.

What can be supposed wanting in our Church in order to salvation? We have the Word of God, the Faith of the Apostles, the Creeds of the Primitive Church, the Articles of the four first General Councils, a holy liturgy, excellent prayers, perfect sacraments, faith and repentance, the Ten Commandments, and the sermons of Christ, and all the precepts and counsels of the Gospels. We … require and strictly exact the severity of a holy life. … We communicate often, our priests absolve the penitent. Our Bishops ordain priests, and confirm baptised persons, and bless their people and intercede for them. And what could here, be wanting to salvation?”
- Jeremy Taylor, Bp. of Down & Connor (1613-1667)

Why return to Rome, wondered Anglican Bp. Taylor nearly four centuries ago, when there is nothing wanting in Canterbury? Of course, much has changed in both Roman Catholicism and Anglicanism in the intervening centuries, but the question still hangs in the air – especially now.

“And what could here, be wanting to salvation?” It would be presumptuous – for several reasons – for me to posit an answer to Bp. Taylor’s question. First, I am neither Anglican nor Roman Catholic. Second, and most significant, to answer the question would require me to stand outside the church and to stand in judgment upon one or another expression of it. As James, the brother of our Lord, taught us (cf James 4:11-12), that is a most dangerous place to stand: Who am I to judge my neighbor – particular when he is the servant of another?

But – Already I’m on treacherous ground; Lord, have mercy on this sinner. – there is implied by Bp. Taylor’s question a notion that perhaps I may address without transgression. Surely, the implied assertion that Anglicanism lacks nothing for salvation cannot mean that Canterbury and Rome are equivalent/indistinguishable in their understanding and practice of Christian salvation? The differences between Anglicanism and Catholicism are profound. And, as different as they are one from another, taken together, they are more different still from Orthodoxy. “What could … be wanting to salvation?” begs this even more fundamental question: “Are all views of the nature of salvation equivalent?” And, if they are not equivalent, are the differences significant?

We can answer these reformulated questions without standing in judgment of any particular communion. No, all views of the nature of salvation are not equivalent. Yes, the differences are significant. Both Anglicanism and Roman Catholicism lack or de-emphasize the therapeutic understanding of salvation so central to Orthodoxy, just as Orthodoxy lacks or de-emphasizes the forensic understanding of salvation prevalent in Western expressions of the faith. These differences in emphasis lead to corresponding differences in theology and praxis. Orthodox theosis – and life of askesis generally required to approach it – for example, is relatively foreign to the Western church; yet, it is the goal and nature of salvation in the Eastern church. The Western concept of original sin is not equivalent to the Eastern understanding of ancestral sin. Simply put, Athanasius is not Anselm.

So, to return to Bp. Taylor’s question: “And what could here, be wanting to salvation?” In one sense, nothing; salvation is available on paths that lead through Canterbury, Rome, Constantinople, and Antioch. But that doesn’t mean the paths are the same.

Wednesday, October 21, 2009

Free Exercise of Religion

Free Exercise of Religion

I recently received a brochure from the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) of Tennessee entitled Know Your Rights: Religion in Public Schools (A Guide for Administrators and Teachers). I will provide the following quotes without comment.

Prayer in Classroom and at Assemblies
The United States Supreme Court has long held that the Establishment Clause of the First Amendment prohibits school-sponsored prayer or religious indoctrination. Forty years ago, the Court struck down classroom prayers and scripture readings, even if they were voluntary and even if students had the option of being excused.

Equal Access Act
Religious clubs may hold meetings on public high school grounds in accordance with the Federal Equal Access Act as long as other similar non-curriculum related student groups are allowed to meet during non-instructional time; the club does not interfere with regular educational activities; and the school does not initiate, direct, sponsor, participate in, or promote during instructional time the religious activities of student clubs. Additionally, while faculty are commonly required to be present during student meetings for insurance purposes, their role should be restricted to a custodial, non-participatory role.

Prayer at School Board Meetings
(Regarding prayer at School Board meetings) the court observed that “[t]he very fact that school board meetings focus solely on school-related matters provides students with an incentive to attend the meetings that is lacking in other settings. The board makes policy on a wide range of issues directly affecting a student’s life in school. Be it dress codes, locker searches, changes in the curriculum, or funding for extracurricular activities, school board meetings are the arena in which all issues directly relevant to students are discussed and decided. The fact that the board regularly presents honors and awards to students at its meetings only provides added enticements for students to attend school board meetings. Furthermore, students who wish to challenge their suspension or expulsion from school are required by statute to air their grievances at a school board meeting. For such students, attendance at a board meeting is not a matter of choice…
Under this analysis the court found that the practice of beginning school board meetings with a prayer was unconstitutional.

Prayer at Graduation
Because attendance at high school graduation ceremonies is in effect obligatory – and because the ceremonies themselves are an adjunct to, and, in a real sense, the culmination of the public school curriculum – the inclusion of a religious program in graduation ceremonies violates the Establishment Clause.

Baccalaureate Services
The absence of prayer from a public school’s official graduation ceremony does not prohibit students from affirming their religious beliefs before or after the ceremony. Nothing in Lee or Santa Fe, for example, would prevent or prohibit like-minded students from organizing a privately-sponsored baccalaureate service – provided that it was held separately from the school’s graduation program, was entirely voluntary, and was neither sponsored nor supervised by school officials.

“See You at the Pole”
Organized events such as “See You at the Pole” are permissible under certain conditions. “See You at the Pole” involves prayer meetings held before the start of the school day at a pre-arranged site on school grounds. Similar to guidelines outlined in the Equal Access Act, outside persons may not direct, conduct, control or regularly attend the activities of such student groups. Additionally, schools may not circumvent the ban against school-sponsored prayer by initiating such events and delegating the responsibilities to students, or by obtaining “permission” from parents. Furthermore, schools may not advertise or promote such events within the school either verbally or in writing.

In conclusion, the state may neither prefer nor prohibit religious exercise but rather must remain neutral. “School sponsorship of a religious message is impermissible because it sends the ancillary message to members of the audience who are non-adherents ‘that they are outsiders, not full members of the political community, and an accompanying message to adherents that they are insiders, favored members of the political community.’

For more information, please visit .

Saturday, October 17, 2009


In my experience, really committed Protestants tend to think of themselves as "saved" because they have accepted Jesus; Roman Catholics, on the other hand, see themselves as "sinners" in need of weekly absolution. Orthodox just think themselves lucky.

There is, it seems to me, enough of the living truth in each of the three Churches to bring its members to Christ. Just as each has enough of fallen humanity to give the Holy Spirit a hard time.

from A Place of Healing for the Soul: Patmos by Peter France

Thursday, October 15, 2009

Sermon: 20 Pentecost (18 October 2009)

Sermon: 20 Pentecost 2009 (18 Oct 2009)
(Job 38:1-7, 34-41/Psalm 104:1-9, 24, 35c/Hebrews 5:1-10/Mark 10:34-45)
A Royal Priesthood

Blessed be God: Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.
And blessed be his kingdom, now and for ever. Amen.

For twelve years the five kings of the plain – including Bera, king of Sodom – had served and paid tribute to Chedorlaomer, king of Elam. In the thirteenth year they rebelled. Chedorlaomer and his allies Amraphel, Arioch, and Tidal massed their armies and came against the kings of the plain routing them and taking possession of property and people. Abram’s nephew Lot was captured in the raid against Sodom.

When Abram learned of Lot’s capture, he assembled his 318 trained men – his family army – and pursued Chedorlaomer. Though certainly outnumbered, Abram divided his forces and attacked by night; God gave him victory over his foes. So Abram rescued Lot and brought back to Sodom all his goods, as well as the women captives and all the people.

Then the king of Sodom went out to meet him at the Valley of Shaveh (that is, the King’s Valley), after his return from the slaughter of Chedorlaomer and the kings with him. Now Melchizadek the king of Salem brought out bread and wine; he was the priest of God Most High. He blessed Abram and said, “Blessed be Abram of God Most High, Creator of heaven and earth; and blessed be God Most High, who delivered your enemies into your hands.” Then Abram gave him a tithe of all (Gen 14:17-20).[1]

If you are a faithful Roman Catholic, it is the Pope, the Bishop of Rome; if an Orthodox Christian, the Patriarchs; if a Tibetan Buddhist, the Dalai Lama. These men – Pope, Patriarchs, and Dalai Lama – are the spiritual leaders of their respective global faith communities. Even more, in some sense, they are the physical embodiment of the faith, the earthly focal point; the positions they hold – not the men, but the positions – are essentially indispensable. Just try to imagine Roman Catholicism without the papacy: Christianity, yes, but Catholicism, no.

For the first century Jew, the equivalent was the High Priest. Only he could enter the Holy of Holies and atone for the sins of the nation: no high priest, no atonement; no high priest, no reconciliation with God. The priestly tribe of Levi was responsible for all temple worship, from administrative responsibilities, to liturgical worship, to offerings and sacrifices. Without this brotherhood of priests – and the high priest specifically – the first century practice of Judaism was impossible.

So, the loss of the priesthood – the loss of the High Priest, in particular – was especially difficult for first century Jewish Christians. Who, in their new faith in Jesus as Messiah, corresponded to the high priest? Was there any equivalent gain for this great loss? How do you have a faith without a priesthood, and a priesthood without a high priest? It is no wonder that these themes and questions figure so prominently in the letter to the Hebrews – a letter written to show the Christian faith as the fulfillment of Judaism, as superior to it in every way. How can the Christian faith be superior if it lacks a priesthood and a high priest? So, if we are to make our way through the letter, it is to the priesthood that we must turn our attention.

I am used to students asking, Why do we have to learn this? what’s this good for? and other such questions. And I can image that you might have similar questions now: We’re not first century Jews, so why do we need to know about the priesthood? Without this knowledge, though, it is impossible to understand who Jesus is for us and for the world, and who we are for one another and for the world. These issues of priesthood lie near the heart of Christology – the nature of Christ – and ecclesiology – the nature of the church. Bear with me a bit, and trust that it will become clear.

The first man was the first priest. Adam, because he was the pinnacle of creation, fashioned by God from the dust of the ground, was able to represent all of creation before God through his worship and obedience. Only man is able to come before God and give voice to creation’s praise and thanksgiving. Our Eucharistic Prayer (Anaphora of St. Basil) acknowledges this unique priestly vocation of man:

Countless throngs of angels stand before you to serve you night and day; and, beholding the glory of your presence, they offer you unceasing praise. Joining with them, and giving voice to every creature under heaven (emphasis supplied), we acclaim you, and glorify your Name, as we sing, Holy, holy, holy…

But man is more than creature; man is creature fashioned in the image of God and enlivened by the breath/Spirit of God. And so, man is uniquely able to bear the image of God before creation and thus represent God to creation. Again, our Eucharistic Prayer recalls this priestly role of man:

You formed us in your own image, giving the whole world into our care, so that, in obedience to you, our Creator, we might rule and serve all your creatures.

Man – male and female – was created to be a priest: to represent creation before God and to represent God before creation. The first role of the priesthood, formed into our bodies and breathed into our spirits, is representation. That capacity for representation was an essential part of the nature and vocation of man.

But, much changed with the fall. Man could no longer perfectly represent creation before God, for now man was a creature in rebellion against God. Nor could man truly and adequately represent God before creation, for the image of God in man was distorted by sin. Thus, the original priesthood of man was lost. Though our disobedience took us far from God, God did not abandon us to the power of death, but appointed other priests – patriarchs like Noah, Job, Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, and later the descendants of Aaron, to serve a new priestly role: the ministry of reconciliation. These men offered sacrifice for the sin of the people, offerings of blood to cover the penalty of sin. Of course, these priests were subject to the same sins as the people, so, before offering sacrifice for the people, they first offered sacrifice for themselves. Theirs was, at best, an imperfect priesthood due to their complicity in sin and due to the inherent limitations of their ministry. While their priesthood might facilitate reconciliation – forgiveness of specific transgressions – it could not accomplish restoration – the recreation of man as perfect image bearer of God and representative of all creation. The Jewish priesthood – the Aaronic priesthood – with its high priest bore this limitation: a priesthood as guilty before God as the people, unable to fulfill the original priestly vocation of representation.

So, Paul writes to the Hebrew Christians:

For every high priest taken from among men is appointed for men in things pertaining to God, that he may offer both gifts and sacrifices for sins. He can have compassion on those who are ignorant and going astray, since he himself is also subject to weakness. Because of this he is required as for the people, so also for himself, to offer sacrifices for sin. And no man takes this honor to himself, but he who is called by God, just as Aaron was (Heb 5:1-4).

What is needed is a priesthood prior to the Aaronic priesthood, a priesthood uncontaminated by sin, a priesthood not merely of reconciliation, but also of restoration. And that, Paul argues, is precisely what we now have in Jesus – our great High Priest after the order of Melchizedek.

So also Christ did not glorify Himself to become High Priest, but it was He who said to Him:
“You are My Son,
Today I have begotten you.”

As He also says in another place:
“You are a priest forever
According to the order of Melchizedek” (Heb 5:5-6).

To the first century, Jewish Christians who deeply felt the loss of the Aaronic priesthood and the high priest, Paul points to Jesus, our Great High Priest from the order of Melchizedek, an order prior to and superior to Aaron, an order free from the sin that affected the Aaronic priests. This Melchizedek that greeted Abram on his return from the slaughter of Chedorlaomer was no mere human priest. Look at his name: Melchizedek – the king of righteousness. Look at his title: the king of Salem – the king of shalom, the king of peace. Look at his actions: he brought out bread and wine; he was the priest of God Most High. He blessed Abram and said, “Blessed be Abram of God Most High, Creator of heaven and earth; and blessed be God Most High.” This was a eucharistic feast – a victory feast of thanksgiving – served by the righteous king of peace. This Melchizedek was a shadow of Jesus certainly, and an epiphany of Jesus perhaps: Jesus in person, Jesus in bread and wine, Jesus our great High Priest from before time and forever. So says the church.

“Where is the high priest?” ask the Jewish Christians. “Look to Jesus,” answers Paul.

But what of those other priests – those who offer sacrifices, those who intercede for the people with God and who intercede for God with the people, those who pray and sing and order worship: not the high priest, but the great brotherhood of the priests? Where are they in this new faith in Jesus the Messiah?

St. Paul doesn’t answer this question; he is more interested in Jesus as high priest. But St. Peter and St. John do: priests abound, they insist – and not just in the Catholic, Orthodox, and Anglican churches, but everywhere in the church.

4 Coming to Him as to a living stone, rejected indeed by men, but chosen by God and precious, 5 you also, as living stones, are being built up a spiritual house, a holy priesthood, to offer up spiritual sacrifices acceptable to God through Jesus Christ.

9 [But] you are a chosen generation, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, His own special people, that you may proclaim the praises of Him who called you out of darkness into His marvelous light (1 Pe 2:4-5, 9).

St. Peter speaks to the church here – to the whole church – and proclaims the church – the whole church – a holy priesthood, a royal priesthood. St. John echoes this understanding in his greeting to the seven churches in Asia Minor.

4 John, to the seven churches which are in Asia:Grace to you and peace from Him who is and who was and who is to come, and from the seven Spirits who are before His throne, 5 and from Jesus Christ, the faithful witness, the firstborn from the dead, and the ruler over the kings of the earth. To Him who loved us and washed us from our sins in His own blood, 6 and has made us kings and priests to His God and Father, to Him be glory and dominion forever and ever. Amen (Rev 1:4-6).

Clearly, according to Peter – the rock upon whom the church was founded – and John – the beloved disciple and theologian – every member of the church is a priest of God the Father of Jesus Christ, our great high priest. Baptism is ordination to the Christian priesthood. You exercise your priestly vocation every time you intercede with God in prayer on behalf of another or on behalf of the world; every time you show forth his praise with truly thankful hearts, not only with your lips but with your lives; every time you give up yourselves to his service and walk before him in holiness and righteousness; every time you go out into the world to do the work God has given you to do, to his glory and honor. The priesthood is not the limited calling of a few, but the open call to all members of Christ’s body. To be in Christ is to be in the priesthood.

Within the priesthood of all believers there are many and varied ministries: some are deacons, some are presbyters/bishops, some are teachers, some are pastors; some show hospitality, some give generously, some heal, some prophesy, some sing, some comfort; some exhibit wisdom, some have knowledge, some discern spirits; some do this and some do that, but all are priests exercising their priestly vocations through specific ministries.

I recently experienced the priesthood of all believers in a very profound and personal way, through a family tragedy – the sudden and unexpected death of a young niece. As the extended family gathered at her parent’s home on the night of the death, the grieving mother looked especially to one sister-in-law for comfort. Why? Because two years earlier – almost to the day – this sister-in-law had experienced the similar loss of her own daughter. That night she was truly a priest, exercising her Christian priesthood in offering comfort and hope to grieving parents. She was uniquely qualified to do so through what she herself had suffered. Our gracious God works all things together for the good of those who love him and are called according to his purpose. Even death and suffering are redeemed in his hands, for God is not helpless before his creatures. Sometimes our priesthood is born of suffering, which brings up back around again to Jesus, our Great High Priest.

5 So also Christ did not glorify Himself to become High Priest, but it was He who said to Him: “ You are My Son,
Today I have begotten You.”

6 As He also says in another place:
“ You are a priest forever
According to the order of Melchizedek”;

7 who, in the days of His flesh, when He had offered up prayers and supplications, with vehement cries and tears to Him who was able to save Him from death, and was heard because of His godly fear, 8 though He was a Son, yet He learned obedience by the things which He suffered. 9 And having been perfected, He became the author of eternal salvation to all who obey Him, 10 called by God as High Priest “according to the order of Melchizedek” (Heb 5:5-10).

Christ, our Great High Priest, suffered and died so that he might become perfectly able to help us who suffer and die, so that he might be the author of our eternal salvation.

Does our faith have a high priest? Yes, Jesus Christ the King of Righteousness, the King of Peace, the high priest forever after the order of Melchizedek. Does our faith have a brotherhood (and sisterhood) of priests? Yes, all the members of the body of Christ ordained through baptism and called to many and various ministries of grace in their priestly vocation. What remains is for us to exercise our priestly calling: to represent God before the world, to represent the world before God, to proclaim good news, to preach reconciliation, to call all to repentance and to speak words of forgiveness – to exercise the priesthood of representation and reconciliation as Christ, our Great High Priest, exercises his priesthood of the restoration of all things.

To our Great High Priest be glory and honor now and unto the ages of ages. Amen.

[1] Unless otherwise noted, all New Testament Scripture quotations are from the New King James Version, copyright © 1982 by Thomas Nelson, Inc. and all Old Testament Scripture quotations are from the St. Athanasius Academy Septuagint, copyright © 2008 by St. Athanasius Academy of Orthodox Theology.

Wednesday, October 7, 2009


“Remember,” Father Maximos said as he escorted them to their car, “whatever good or bad things happen to us, they have only one single purpose, to awaken us to the reality of God and help us on the path toward union with Him. There is no other reason for being born on this planet, believe me. It is up to us whether or not we take advantage of these wake-up calls.”
The Mountain of Silence, Kyriacos Markides
There is only one tragedy: to fail to become a saint.
Léon Bloy, quoted in The Jesus Prayer, Frederica Mathewes-Green
…in order really to be members of the Church and to belong to the Body of Christ, the laity must partake, or struggle to partake, of the purifying, illuminating and deifying energy of God.
These things are being said with the understanding that through Baptism we are enrolled as members of the Church. However, if we do not activate the grace of Baptism by the whole ascetic life which the Church has, then we are not really members of it. We can make a division. It is one thing to be a potential member of the Church, to have accepted the possibility of becoming a real member, and it is another thing to be an active member of the Church. St. Gregory Palamas uses the image of the son of the King. He is born in the palace and has the possibility of becoming heir to his father’s estate. But if he dies prematurely or if he is expelled from the house, then he loses the possibility of inheriting the good things. Christ says about the bishop of Sardis: “I know your works, that you have a name that you are alive, but you are dead.” True, he can repent, and therefore he is advised to “be watchful” and “repent,” but at that moment he was spiritually dead…
Thus in the Church some are members potentially, some actually, and to express it better, some are dead limbs and others are living ones. This distinction, dead and alive, is seen in all the biblico-patristic tradition of the Church. And it is a pity when we do not know this whole tradition and teach that all who receive only Holy Baptism are members of the Church. To be sure, there are also members who have cut themselves off completely from the Church. But some dead members have the possibility of being made alive by the operation of divine grace and their own cooperation.
The mind of the Orthodox Church, Metropolitan Hierotheos

“Go to Church. Say your prayers. Remember God.”
-- advice given to Fr. Thomas Hopko by his mother as he left for seminary

Tuesday, October 6, 2009

The Jesus Prayer: The Ancient Desert Prayer That Tunes the Heart To God

You cannot choose the thing that will change you. The thing that will change you may well look strange from the outside. My advice is to accept the ancient spiritual disciplines as a complete, integrated healing program, rather than picking and choosing to fit. Some kind of wisdom has been worked out in them over the centuries. This net wisdom may well be smarter than you are, because your experience is limited, and also conditioned by your surrounding culture. Though you think you know yourself and your needs better than anyone, you likely have blind spots; we all do. The advice to continue seeking repentance is so consistent throughout Christian spirituality that I think it's worth taking seriously.
-- from The Jesus Prayer, by Frederica Mathewes-Green

Monday, October 5, 2009

Sermon: 19 Pentecost (11 October 2009)

Sermon: 19 Pentecost (11 October 2009)
(Job 23:1-9, 16-17/Ps 139:1-12/Heb 4:12-16/Mark 10:17-31)
Jesus Pantocrator

Blessed be God: Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.
And blessed be his kingdom, now and for ever. Amen.

Six hundred thousand Hebrew men left Egypt; only two of them – Caleb and Joshua – entered the promised rest in the land of their fathers. The corpses of the rest were scattered over the wilderness during forty years of wandering. Thus spoke the Holy Spirit through the mouth of David two centuries later:

“ Today, if you will hear His voice, do not harden your hearts as in the rebellion, in the day of trial in the wilderness, where your fathers tested Me, tried Me, and saw My works forty years. Therefore I was angry with that generation, and said, ‘They always go astray in their heart, and they have not known My ways.’ So I swore in My wrath, ‘They shall not enter My rest’” (Heb 4:7b-11).

This Exodus story of hope and failure, of mercy and judgment forms the backdrop of the letter to the Hebrews; it is never far from the author’s mind and its lesson is the letter’s constant refrain:

12 Beware, brethren, lest there be in any of you an evil heart of unbelief in departing from the living God; 13 but exhort one another daily, while it is called “Today,” lest any of you be hardened through the deceitfulness of sin. 14 For we have become partakers of Christ if we hold the beginning of our confidence steadfast to the end, 15 while it is said: “Today, if you will hear His voice, Do not harden your hearts as in the rebellion” (Heb 4:12-15).

When an Orthodox Christian makes confession she does so not only in the presence of a priest but also in the presence of an icon of Jesus Christ. The icon is a visual reminder that confession is made not to the priest but to Christ – the priest is there as fellow sinner and witness – and that forgiveness comes not from the priest but from Christ – the priest is there as spokesman. Just before confession the priest says:

Behold, my child, Christ standeth here invisibly, and receiveth thy confession: wherefore, be not ashamed, neither be afraid, and conceal thou nothing from me: but tell me, doubting not, all things which thou hast done; and so shalt thou have pardon from our Lord Jesus Christ. Lo, his holy image is before us: and I am but a witness, bearing testimony before him of all things which thou dost say to me. But if thou shalt conceal anything from me, thou shalt have the greater sin. Take heed, therefore, lest, having come to the physician, thou depart unhealed.[1]

These words are double-edged: comfort and caution. Do not be afraid; do not ashamed; do not doubt, and so shall you have pardon from our Lord Jesus Christ. Take heed; do not conceal; do not depart unhealed, or so shall you have greater sin before our Lord Jesus Christ. The priest speaks the twofold truth of blessing and warning.

When I make my private, daily confession during morning prayer, I, too, do so in the presence of an icon of Jesus Christ. The icon I have chosen – or the icon that has chosen me, for I am sure this is more nearly the case – is the Pantocrator of Sinai. It is the oldest, extant example of this form of iconography, preserved since the 7th or 8th century at Saint Catherine’s monastery in the Sinai. It is, for me, the translation in line and form, in paint and color, of the twofold truth of the priest’s instruction to the penitent and of Paul’s instructions to the Hebrews: caution and comfort, warning and blessing.

Pantocrator means “all-mighty” or “ruler/sustainer of all.” The Pantocrator icons – and there are many styles – image Jesus in frontal view holding an ornate book, the Gospels, in his left hand, and raising his right hand in blessing; this form is common to all Pantocrator icons. What sets the Pantocrator of Sinai apart from so many others is the radical difference between the left and right sides of the image: caution and comfort, warning and blessing.

For the word of God is living and powerful, and sharper than any two-edged sword, piercing even to the division of soul and spirit, and of joints and marrow, and is a discerner of the thoughts and intents of the heart.

And there is no creature hidden from His sight, but all things are naked and open to the eyes of Him to whom we must give account (Heb 4:12-13)

This is a sobering word of caution to those who come before Jesus Pantocrator, the Lord Almighty, the Ruler/Sustainer of All. We do not want to be known in our sin; we do not even want to know our sin. So, like the emperor with new clothes, we cover our sin with fake finery woven from a few threads of good deeds on a loom of niceness, and with that we hope to fool the world. We learned to hide very early.

Then the eyes of the two were opened, and they knew they were naked. So they sewed fig leaves together and made themselves coverings.

Then they heard the voice of the Lord God walking in the garden that afternoon, and Adam and his wife hid themselves within the tree in the middle of the garden from the presence of the Lord God (Gen 3:7-8).

Amazingly, this often works – the whole world hiding from one another – until we come before Jesus Pantocrator. He sees through the new clothes; he sees through the fig leaves. And there we stand, naked and open to the eyes of Him to whom we must give account. His eye is piercing and unrelenting, his mouth set firmly against our sin. We are caught, pinned there by his gaze, as we hear the Word of God, living and powerful, sharper than any two-edged sword, the Word of God who discerns the thoughts and intents of our hearts, speak to us. And we fear his words to us will be those he spoke to the angel of the church at Laodicea:

‘These things says the Amen, the Faithful and True Witness, the Beginning of the creation of God: 15 “I know your works, that you are neither cold nor hot. I could wish you were cold or hot. 16 So then, because you are lukewarm, and neither cold nor hot, I will vomit you out of My mouth. 17 Because you say, ‘I am rich, have become wealthy, and have need of nothing’—and do not know that you are wretched, miserable, poor, blind, and naked— 18 I counsel you to buy from Me gold refined in the fire, that you may be rich; and white garments, that you may be clothed, that the shame of your nakedness may not be revealed; and anoint your eyes with eye salve, that you may see’ (Rev 3:14b-18).

If we are honest – and it is hard not to be when we stand before Jesus Pantocrator – we know these should be his words to us. And if they were his final words, they might well be words of despair. But the truth is twofold, and the Pantocrator has another side.

Seeing then that we have a great High Priest who has passed through the heavens, Jesus the Son of God, let us hold fast our confession.

For we do not have a High Priest who cannot sympathize with our weaknesses, but was in all points tempted as we are, yet without sin.

Let us therefore come boldly to the throne of grace, that we may obtain mercy and find grace to help in time of need (Heb 4:14-16).

This is a blessed word of comfort to those who come before Jesus Pantocrator, the Great High Priest and Son of God, our Redeemer and Advocate. He knows we are but dust and ashes; he knows how feeble is our frame. He knows our heavy burden of sin for he took it all upon himself. He knows man, for he is fully man. Jesus sees us in our nakedness and clothes us in his righteousness. He sees us in our weakness and comes to us with his grace. His eye is gentle and compassionate, his hand raised in blessing.
We come to Jesus as the Roman soldiers who nailed this hand of blessing to the cross and yet we hear him say, “Father, forgive them, for they do not know what they do” (Luke 23:34). We come to Jesus as the thief on the cross expecting just punishment for our sin. We cry out, “Lord, remember me when You come into Your kingdom,” and we hear him respond, “Assuredly, I say to you, today you will be with Me in Paradise,” (cf Luke 23:39-43).

If we are honest – and it is hard not to be when we stand before Jesus Pantocrator – we know that we do not deserve to hear these words; we do not deserve his mercy. No, these words of comfort and blessing are words of pure grace.

In the church, the word “heresy” is used to describe a departure from orthodox faith and practice. Heresy comes from the Greek hairesis, whose root means “to choose.” It is often more an error of emphasis than an actual departure from the truth – choosing to live a half-truth as if it were the whole truth. You might think of heresy as keeping apart those things which should be, those things which must be, held together. Each side of the Pantocrator is true, but each side is a half-truth, and choosing one to the exclusion of the other – keeping the sides apart – is heresy. Judgment is terrible if not unified with mercy; how frightful it is to be so fully known – known in all our nakedness and sin – if we are not also fully loved. And mercy is pitiable if not unified with judgment; how tragic to be so fully accepted – accepted in all our nakedness and sin – if we are not also fully judged and fully transformed. The two sides of the Pantocrator belong together.

12 For the word of God is living and powerful, and sharper than any two-edged sword, piercing even to the division of soul and spirit, and of joints and marrow, and is a discerner of the thoughts and intents of the heart. 13 And there is no creature hidden from His sight, but all things are naked and open to the eyes of Him to whom we must give account.
14 Seeing then that we have a great High Priest who has passed through the heavens, Jesus the Son of God, let us hold fast our confession. 15 For we do not have a High Priest who cannot sympathize with our weaknesses, but was in all points tempted as we are, yet without sin. 16 Let us therefore come boldly to the throne of grace, that we may obtain mercy and find grace to help in time of need (Heb 4:12-16).

The Western church has a prayer – received through the 11th century Sarum Rite – that reminds us of the great twofold truth of judgment and mercy, a prayer which is a verbal icon of Jesus Pantocrator:

Almighty God, to you all hearts are open, all desires known, and from you no secrets are hid: Cleanse the thoughts of our hearts by the inspiration of your Holy Spirit, that we may perfectly love you, and worthily magnify your holy Name; through Christ our Lord.

Through Christ our Lord, through Jesus Pantocrator – the Word of God who is living and powerful, sharper than any two-edged sword – before whom me must all give account; through Christ our Lord, through Jesus Pantocrator – our great High Priest – who bids us come boldly before the throne of grace to obtain mercy. Through Christ our Lord, through Jesus Pantocrator: Amen.

(I must acknowledge Kh. Frederica Mathewes-Green for her insite into the Pantocrator of Sinai icon; I first saw the division of the right and left sides on her Beliefnet video at the following url: .)

[1] Florence Hapgood. Service Book of the Holy Orthodox-Catholic Apostolic Church. Copyright ©1996 by the Antiochian Orthodox Christian Archdiocese of North America.
[2] Unless otherwise noted, all New Testament Scripture quotations are from The Holy Bible, New King James Version, copyright © 1982 by Thomas Nelson, Inc.
[3] Unless otherwise noted, all Old Testament Scripture quotations are from the St. Athanasius Academy Septuagint, copyright © 2008 by St. Athanasius Academy of Orthodox Theology.

Saturday, October 3, 2009

Sermon: 18 Pentecost (4 October 2009)

Sermon: 18 Pentecost (4 October 2009)
(Job 1:1; 2:1-10/Psalm 8/Hebrews 1:1-4; 2:5-12/Mark 10:2-16)
Absolutely, Unapologetically Christocentric

Blessed be God: Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.
And blessed be his kingdom, now and for ever. Amen.

Downsizing can be difficult, especially if it is not voluntary. A middle-aged man loses a prestigious and lucrative position as a corporate CEO in the latest economic downturn and now finds himself a teacher at a local high school – and frankly considers himself lucky to find that, or any, job. “If I’d known this was going to happen, I’d have advocated for higher teacher pay years ago,” is about all he can say about his plight. Despite the gallows humor, you know his life has changed radically. No more expense account power-lunches at fine restaurants: just scarf down a brown bag lunch or some cafeteria food in the thirty minutes between classes or meetings. No more Lexus or BMW: a Honda will have to do. Smaller salary, smaller house, smaller circle of friends: everything seems diminished in the transition. Given the choice, he’d return to his former position in a heartbeat.

But, if he just hangs in there a bit, he may find that what he initially perceives as loss, is really gain. Forget power-lunches; now he knows the Lunch Ladies – that’s where the real power in the school lies, and there is no better group of people anywhere. Forget the Lexus or BMW: there are plenty of those at school anyway – all in the student parking lot. The Honda’s reliable and fuel-efficient and takes him everywhere the Lexus ever did. Smaller salary sure, but more time with his wife and grandkids. Smaller house yes, but less yard work and lower mortgage. Smaller circle of friends? No, just different friends and hundreds of kids whose lives he has the chance to change for the better. How is any of this a come-down? By any sane comparison he’s improved his life immeasurably.

But he is not sane just yet; sanity takes time. The key is to get the man to hang in there long enough to realize what he’s found: leave too early and he misses all the benefits.

Change the details of the story just a bit, and, in broad strokes, you have the situation of Jewish Christians in the first century. They had “downsized” their ancient and honored faith – the faith of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob and the faith of Moses – for the faith of a cult, a small offshoot of messianic Judaism centered on an executed criminal. Granted, they believed this Jesus who died was raised on the third day and thereby shown by the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob to be both Lord and Messiah. But, they were in a very small minority of Jews who saw things that way. And the tolerance level toward this new faith was not very high. From the beginning the orthodox Jews – scribes, Pharisees, and Sadducees – were suspicious of Jesus and hostile toward his growing movement. After his death the hostilities increased and followers of the Way were pursued from one town to another – think Saul, here – arrested, and brought in chains to Jerusalem for trial. The Romans, also, soon determined that this new faith was a destabilizing influence on the empire – it had strange notions about wealth, public service, master-slave relations, war, emperor worship, and a host of other cultural givens – and so Rome sporadically set about to purge it from the cultural landscape.

Once a new Jewish Christian got over the excitement of embracing this radical new faith, he might just begin to take a hard look at the balance sheet – what was lost and what was gained. And, frankly, the losses added up quickly: loss of cultural and religious identity – the holy days, the feasts and fasts, the Sabbath, the temple worship and the priesthood, the Torah; loss of status – even in Roman occupied Jerusalem the Jews exercised significant autonomy and were accorded a certain status as an ancient people with an historic faith; loss of family and friends – followers of Jesus often were considered blasphemers; and on it goes, the balance sheet bleeding red ink. The pressures to reconnect with Judaism – to say, “This Jesus thing was just a phase I was going through and now I’m back in the fold.” – must have been enormous.

Just as with our downsized CEO, the key was to get these Jewish Christians to hold on, to hang in there long enough to realize that every perceived loss was overwhelmingly offset by a corresponding gain. Leave too early and you miss all the real and substantial benefits of the faith.

The Letter to the Hebrews was written to encourage these Jewish Christians to hold on. It is, in many ways, a spiritual ledger book – debits and credits, losses and gains – intended to show Judaism as a mere shadow of the reality that is the Christian faith, a foretaste of the glory of God in the face of Christ. Its focus is absolutely and unapologetically Christocentric: nothing is full apart from Christ and everything reaches its fulfillment only in Christ. The prologue sets the theme for the entire letter.

1 God, who at various times and in various ways spoke in time past to the fathers by the prophets, 2 has in these last days spoken to us by His Son, whom He has appointed heir of all things, through whom also He made the worlds; 3 who being the brightness of His glory and the express image of His person, and upholding all things by the word of His power, when He had by Himself purged our sins, sat down at the right hand of the Majesty on high, 4 having become so much better than the angels, as He has by inheritance obtained a more excellent name than they (Heb 1:1-4).[1]

As a Jew, Paul says – and the attribution of Hebrews to Paul, while traditional, is far from certain – as a Jew, Paul says, you had the prophets and their words to our fathers. But, as a Christian, you have the Son, the heir of all things, the Word himself through whom all things were made – things in heaven and things on earth, all that is, seen and unseen. As a Jew, you had Moses, the greatest of the prophets, who was allowed to catch only a glimpse of the back of God’s glory (cf Ex 33). But, as a Christian, you have Jesus, the full brightness of God’s glory and the icon – the character and image – of God. As a Jew, you had the angels – for the Jews believed that God spoke to man through the angels (e.g. Abraham and the three visitors) and that God delivered the Law to Moses through the mediation of angels. But, as a Christian, you have the One who sits at the right hand of God on high, not a servant as the angels are, but a Son and heir, with a name far above that of any angel. As a Jew, you had the shadow, the foretaste of the glory to come. As a Christian, you have the reality, the fullness of the glory of God in the face of Christ. Nothing is full apart from Christ, and everything reaches its fulfillment only in Christ. So, hold on. Look again at the ledger. There are no losses in Christ: only great and eternal gains.

We are not Jewish Christians; we are not tempted to return to what we never knew. But, in our culture we are continually enticed away from Jesus Christ. We are in a culture – or more precisely, in a multi-culture – that values Jesus, if at all, as only one option among many on the religious/spiritual menu – neither better nor worse nor really different in kind than the gods of the new age or the gods of the ancient religions. Choose wicca; choose Hinduism; choose Buddhism; choose paganism; choose atheism; choose Darwinism; choose any or all of the above; or choose Jesus: it’s all the same in the end and we must honor each one’s choice as equally valid. Country music artist Reba McIntyre recently labeled herself a Buddhist Christian because she believes in reincarnation; it seems to matter not at all to her or to many others that Buddhism and Christianity are so fundamentally different as to be mutually exclusive. There is a real question that begs asking to twenty-first-century secular Christians – a question not unlike that which Paul poses to the first-century Jewish Christians: If Christianity is true, as understood by the Orthodox faithful for two millennia, what would entice you away from it, or what would entice you to blend it with any other philosophy or religion? If Christianity is true, then it is the fulfillment of all that has gone before; it is the reality to which the shadows point. Why return to the partial? Why prefer the shadows?

As Christians, we accept and honor all that is true and good in other faiths or in other philosophies. Judaism and Islam are correct: there is but one God who alone is worthy of worship. But, Judaism and Islam are partial, and thus incorrect, in their understanding of that one God whom we know and we worship as Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. Buddhism is correct in its emphasis on wisdom, ethical conduct, and mental development. But Buddhism is partial, and thus incorrect, in teaching that wisdom, ethical conduct, and mental development are possible apart from Jesus and his redemptive work of salvation. Science is correct – as far as that word has meaning in science – in many of its assertions about the operation of the physical universe. But science is partial, and thus incorrect, in asserting that God is a hypothesis of which there is no need (a lá Pierre-Simone Laplace), that all is merely matter and energy, cause and affect. Why be content with any partial truth when the fullness of all truth is ours in Christ Jesus?

On this matter Paul spoke well to the stoics and epicureans in Athens and we should listen well to his words.

22 Then Paul stood in the midst of the Areopagus and said, “Men of Athens, I perceive that in all things you are very religious; 23 for as I was passing through and considering the objects of your worship, I even found an altar with this inscription: TO THE UNKNOWN GOD.
Therefore, the One whom you worship without knowing, Him I proclaim to you: 24 God, who made the world and everything in it, since He is Lord of heaven and earth, does not dwell in temples made with hands. 25 Nor is He worshiped with men’s hands, as though He needed anything, since He gives to all life, breath, and all things. 26 And He has made from one blood
every nation of men to dwell on all the face of the earth, and has determined their preappointed times and the boundaries of their dwellings, 27 so that they should seek the Lord, in the hope that they might grope for Him and find Him, though He is not far from each one of us; 28 for in Him we live and move and have our being, as also some of your own poets have said, ‘For we are also His offspring.’ 29 Therefore, since we are the offspring of God, we ought not to think that the Divine Nature is like gold or silver or stone, something shaped by art and man’s devising. 30 Truly, these times of ignorance God overlooked, but now commands all men everywhere to repent, 31 because He has appointed a day on which He will judge the world in righteousness by the Man whom He has ordained. He has given assurance of this to all by raising Him from the dead” (Acts 17:22-31).

Paul is absolutely and unapologetically Christocentric: nothing is full apart from Christ and everything reaches its fulfillment only in Christ.

That was not obvious to most first-century Jews, and apparently not even to some first-century Jewish Christians. Wasn’t Jesus a man like us? Wasn’t he rejected by his own people? Wasn’t he executed by the imperial powers? How then can you say that he was superior to the angels? How then can you say that he is the heir of all things or the brightness of the glory of God or the perfect image of his person? How then can you say he is the fulfillment of all things when he was subjected to all the humiliations of humanity, and ultimately subjected to death on a cross? Because, Paul answers, neither Jesus’ humble station nor his humiliating death was the end of the story. For now,

9 [But] we see Jesus, who was made a little lower than the angels, for the suffering of death crowned with glory and honor, that He, by the grace of God, might taste death for everyone.
10 For it was fitting for Him, for whom are all things and by whom are all things, in bringing many sons to glory, to make the captain of their salvation perfect through sufferings (Heb 2:9-10).

In his resurrection and ascension to glory at the right hand of the Father we see Jesus in his fullness. And all this – the self-emptying of the incarnation, the humility of ministry, the humiliation of death, the power of resurrection, the glory of ascension – all this was aimed toward a single, grand purpose: to bring many sons to glory – to fill our partial lives with the fullness of God, thereby making us brothers and sisters of Christ and children of God our Father. And that is the great gain of our faith. That is the bottom line of the ledger sheet that erases all loses, cancels all debts, and makes us rich beyond compare – men and women as joint heirs with Jesus Christ of all that is the Father’s. That is why Paul exhorts the Jewish Christians to hold on, to hold fast to the Gospel despite all enticements of their former faith. That is why we hold on, hold fast to Jesus Christ in a world that entices us to see him as but one option among many. That is why we are absolutely and unapologetically Christocentric: nothing is full apart from Christ and everything reaches its fulfillment only in Christ. For only in Christ may we become the sons and daughters of God, to whom be glory in the church, now and unto the ages of ages. Amen.

[1] Unless otherwise noted, all Scripture references are from the New King James Version (NKJV), copyright © 1982 by Thomas Nelson, Inc.