Friday, 5 September 2014

THAT'S ALL, FOLKS!

In the immortal words of Bilbo Baggins: "I regret to announce that this is the end!" I am retiring this blog. After summoning my last scraps of inspiration to complete my eighth book, and finding myself unable to honour invitations to speak or continue podcasting, I think it is time to call it quits on writing and speaking. 

I may post links to the next three books in the side bar here as they are released. The next publication is 'The Ancient Faith Prayer Book', due for release this autumn. That will be followed in 2015 by 'Meditations for Pascha: Reflections on the Pentecostarion', and 'Meditations for the Twelve Great Feasts'.

Sunday, 31 August 2014

WHAT ARE WE LACKING?

Matthew 19: 16-26

At that time, a young man came to Jesus, knelt before Him and said, “Good Teacher, what good thing shall I do that I may have eternal life?” So He said to him, “Why do you call Me good? No one is good but One, that is, God. But if you want to enter into life, keep the commandments.” He said to Him, “Which ones? Jesus replied, “‘You shall not murder,’ ‘You shall not commit adultery,’ ‘You shall not steal,’ ‘You shall not bear false witness,’ ‘Honour your father and your mother,’ and, ‘You shall love your neighbour as yourself.’ ” The young man said to Him, “All these things I have kept from my youth. What do I still lack?” Jesus said to him, “If you want to be perfect, go, sell what you have and give to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven; and come, follow Me.” But when the young man heard that saying, he went away sorrowful, for he had great possessions. Then Jesus said to His disciples, “Assuredly, I say to you that it is hard for a rich man to enter the kingdom of heaven. And again I say to you, it is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for a rich man to enter the kingdom of God.” When His disciples heard it, they were greatly astonished, saying, “Who then can be saved?” But Jesus looked at them and said to them, “With men this is impossible, but with God all things are possible.

***
It is commonplace to hear Christians say that we are living in a society that is becoming less and less moral. In my darkest moments (which are many), I often think the same thing. But in my more clear-sighted moments, I think this is wrong. When I think of the horrendous and barbarous deeds of past ages, I am thankful for living in England in the twenty-first century.

But perhaps “moral” is the wrong word; maybe moralistic would be a better term to use. These days, one has only to light up a cigarette to be met with jeers and contemptible looks or harsh criticism. If one has a momentary lapse and succumbs to one passion or another, or shows any sign of weakness, he is likely to be condemned forever as a bad person. Our so-called “immoral” society is ready to condemn all manner of sin (or should I say sinners), even if that is a word that would not so readily be used. And of course that would not be the preferred nomenclature. For sin can be forgiven, but moralists are not keen on forgiveness: they are more interested in passing judgement. 

From a moralist point of view, the rich young man in today’s Gospel reading was a “good person”: he had no addictions, he was not sexually immoral. He was the archetypal law-abiding citizen and religious goody two shoes. Yet deep down he knew this was not good enough. So he approaches Jesus asking what he must do to have eternal life, and he does so by addressing Jesus as “Good Master!” Our Lord’s reply is surprising: “Why do you call me good? Only God is good”. This answer alone could be the basis of a lengthy theological treatise about the divinity of Christ, His relationship to the Father and the meaning of being the Son of God. But maybe I will attempt that another time. For the purpose of this lowly sermon, our Lord’s reply forms the foundation of Christian “morality”: only God is good, because to be truly good is not to be "law-abiding", but to be holy and the embodiment of love. 

Despite this response, Christ then condescends to the moralistic mind-set of the young man, and tells him if he wants to be saved to keep the commandments. As if he is trying to narrow down the list to a few bare essentials, he asks which ones. And our Lord lists a few, including an injunction that is not one of the “Ten Commandments”, but which is to be found in Leviticus 19:18: “You shall love your neighbour as yourself”. The young man replies, “I have done all of this since my youth. What am I still lacking?” Here the inadequacy of morality is made abundantly clear: despite keeping God’s law, he knows salvation is still far off: something is wrong, and he cannot quite put his finger on it.

St. Basil the Great’s sermon on this passage is particularly interesting, because it reveals that the young man did not in reality keep the last commandment mentioned: “love your neighbour as yourself”. This is apparent from the vast wealth which the young man possesses while surrounded by people who are poor and starving. As St. Basil explains, “whoever loves his neighbour as himself does not possess more than his neighbour”. If we truly had that kind of love, we would all give what we do not need to those who have less. Therefore our Lord tells the young man that if he wishes to be perfect he should sell his possessions and give the money to the poor, and then follow Him (following Him would have meant living as He and the apostles did: poor and homeless). This the young man cannot accept, and he walks away. He turned down the offer of salvation in order to hold on to his abundant wealth.

The rich young man was moral, but he lacked love. He kept the commandments as religious obligations, as moral rules. He did not kill, he did not steal. but he was NOT a good person. For goodness and selfishness are mutually exclusive, and this man was certainly selfish, since he was unwilling to let go of a life of luxury and privilege to help his fellow human beings.

This is what we are all lacking. We may keep the fasts; we may pray; we may be sexually chaste; we may not smoke or drink to excess; we may not be gluttons; we may not be thieves and murderers, but we are still far from the Kingdom of Heaven, because we do not have love. But worst of all: we do not even have the humility to believe that we are really lacking anything. In this sense, we are worse than the rich young man, because he at least realised that something was amiss.

Sunday, 24 August 2014

BEARING THE CROSS

Today, we began our preparation for the Great Feast of the Elevation of the Cross (14th September) with the katavasies of the Cross chanted in the Sunday Matins service. Our preparation is intensified on the Sunday before the Cross, and is later reflected upon in an "after-feast" (the Sunday after the Elevation).
 
The month of September has been described as "the month of the Cross", since it is dominated by this feast, on which we celebrate the finding of the true Cross upon which our Lord was crucified. This is not just cause for an annual celebration: it is an opportunity - particularly next month when we celebrate the beginning of the Church Year on 1st September - to reflect on what it means to be a Christian. 
 
At the heart of the Gospel is the invitation to follow Christ to the Cross. As we hear our Lord say on the Sunday after the Elevation:
“Whoever wishes to be my disciple, let him deny himself, take up his cross, and follow me”. (Matt. 16:24)
Despite this, many try to “sell” Christianity or their particular denomination with promises of happiness, self-improvement, or even wealth. But true Christianity has nothing to sell. Instead, it promises hardship and suffering. Christ said:
“If the world hates you, you know that it hated Me before it hated you. If you were of the world, the world would love its own. Yet because you are not of the world, but I chose you out of the world, therefore the world hates you… If they persecuted Me, they will also persecute you.” (John 15:18-20)
“Brother will betray brother to death, and a father his child. Children will rebel against their parents and have them put to death. Everyone will hate you because of me”. (Mark 13:12-13)
If you are a Christian because you are looking for happiness, you are following the wrong religion. Ours is the religion of the Cross. We are Christians because we believe Christ is the way, the truth and the life, even if it means suffering and death. We are the religion of martyrdom; we are not of this world.
 
But there is another aspect of Christianity which we must also bear in mind: ours is a religion of mercy and compassion: we should condescend to human weakness. But unfortunately, because we are the religion of the Cross, many Orthodox give the impression that in our Church only the strong survive. But as St Paul says:
“Accept the one whose faith is weak, without quarreling over disputable matters.” (Rom. 14:1). 
We are called to bear not only our own cross, but also the cross of others. Again, in the words of St Paul:
“Bear one another's burdens, and so fulfill the law of Christ”. (Gal. 6:2)
Our insistence that others should endure hardship with unfailing heroism destroys the faith of many. In response to every problem and misfortune, to every ill and evil we face, we often hear or give the answers: “It is God’s will; it is good for your humility; just pray and be patient and trust in God; what doesn’t kill you makes you stronger”.

But what doesn’t kill us does not always make us stronger: it often makes us weaker, more bitter, more inept at coping with adversity. Everyone has a breaking point, and few of us have the patience of the saints. Yet we are expected to endure things beyond our strength, and the result can be catastrophic. Yes, we are the Church of the Cross, but we are not an insensitive, heartless, thoughtless Church are we? Surely there is room for weakness; surely there is forgiveness for failure. 

Are we exemplifying the sensitivity and compassion which we see in Christ? Or are we the kind of Church that would have excommunicated St Peter when He denied Him? The kind of Church that would not have received the Prodigal, that would not have received the tax collectors, prostitutes and adulterers whom Christ forgave without hesitation? 

Yes, we are the Church of the Cross, but we are also the Church of compassion and mercy. Take away the Cross, and we end up a wishy-washy, sentimentalist Church that would never produce saints and martyrs. But take away the compassion and mercy, and we end up a harsh, heartless Church that would never allow time for Christians to grow into saints.

We need the Cross to be true Christians, but we also need a heart. Without both of these, there can be no true Christianity and no salvation. 

May Christ remove our heart of stone and replace it with a heart of flesh (Ezek. 36:26), and teach us to take up His Cross and follow Him by exemplifying His compassion and self-denial. Amen.