Tag Archives: salvation

Salvation is Found in the Church

December 1 (OS November 18), 2019: 24th Sunday after Pentecost. Martyr Platon of Ancyra (266); Martyr Romanus the deacon of Caesarea (303). St. Barulas the Youth of Antioch (303). Hieromartyr Zacchaeus the deacon and Alphaeus the reader, of Ceasarea in Palestine (303).

 

SS Cyril & Methodius Orthodox Church

Madison, WI

Epistle: Ephesians 2:14-22

Gospel: Luke 12:16-21

Glory to Jesus Christ!

The Apostle Paul tells us that salvation is not simply a matter of our personal faith. Much less is salvation the fruit of our virtues, that is to say, being a morally good person.

To be sure personal faith and morality are both important and have their own role to play in the Christian life. But salvation is first and foremost being incorporated into the Body of Christ, that is the Church, through Baptism. This is why St Paul tells us that we “are no longer strangers and foreigners, but fellow citizens with the saints and members of the household of God.”

The household of God, as he goes on to say, is a visible community “built on the foundation of the apostles and prophets” with “Jesus Christ Himself being the chief cornerstone, in whom the whole building, being fitted together, grows into a holy temple in the Lord, in whom you also are being built together for a dwelling place of God in the Spirit.”

In the Tradition of the Orthodox Church, salvation is the restoration of communion between God and humanity. The chasm between humanity and God caused by sin is overcome in the Incarnation. In taking on our humanity, the Son re-establishes in His own Person communion between God and the human family.

Again as St Paul tells us Jesus Christ is “Himself is our peace.” He “has broken down the middle wall of separation” that kept us from God and, in so doing, “create[d] in Himself one new man from the two, thus making peace, … reconciling us] … to God in one body through the cross.”

This is why we believe as Orthodox Christians that salvation is found in being a member of the Church. The Church is the Body of Christ and it is where we “who were afar off” from God discover and make our own what in Philippians (4:7) Paul calls “the peace of God.”

But what then are we to make of personal faith and the life of virtue?

It is a mistake for me to think that having been incorporated into the Church by baptism, nothing more is required of me. Nothing could be further from the truth. The parable Jesus tells me this morning is warning to about the dangers of such self-satisfaction.

The rich man’s great material wealth leads him to believe that he has all that he needs for a happy life. “I will say to my soul, ‘Soul, you have many goods laid up for many years; take your ease; eat, drink, and be merry.’”

What he fails to understand, says St Ambrose of Milan, is that the “things that are of the world remain in the world and whatever riches we gather are bequeathed to our heirs.” And, as he goes on to say, what “we cannon take away with us” when we die are not really ours.

The only thing that I can take with me in death, the saint says, is virtue. “Virtue alone is the companion of the dead, mercy alone follows us.”

Having been united to Christ in baptism we are now “one Body in Christ, and individually members of one another” (Romans 12:5). It is this message of unity, of the human family reconciled both to God and with itself, that we preach.

It is not enough to be reconciled with God alone because sin ruptures not only my relationship with Him but you as well.

This means that our membership in the Church is only the starting point. It is, to be sure, essential. But as Orthodox Christians, we do not believe that salvation is a strictly private affair. Sin separates me not only from God but from you as well and so I must be reconciled to both you and God. It isn’t one or the other but both together and one only with the other.

The life of the Church is often contentious. The reason is that we are called not to like each other, though thank God we do, but to love each other. And not only to love each other but to forgive each other.

Our Lord’s expectation is that there will be times when Christians will hurt each other; we will give offense, we will disagree.

My brothers and sisters in Christ! To say, as we do, that salvation is found in the Church is to say that salvation begins the Church. The life of the Church is not the goal of life in Christ but only the starting point.

So let us begin!

In Christ,

+Fr Gregory

What Is Salvation For?

If I ask myself this question at all, “What is salvation for?” I’m likely to answer that my salvation is for me; so that I can be saved from sin and enter  the Kingdom of God. But this is only a partial answer.

In his defense of the Christian faith, St Justin Martyr (Apology, 66 & 67) makes a couple of points that are worth reflecting on as we try to answer the question.

Let’s begin, with Justin’s outline of the basic structure of how the Church celebrated—in fact still celebrates—the Eucharist.

Interestingly, he doesn’t start with telling us what the Eucharist is but the conditions for participating in it:

And this food is called among us Εὐχαριστία [the Eucharist], of which no one is allowed to partake but the man who believes that the things which we teach are true, and who has been washed with the washing that is for the remission of sins, and unto regeneration, and who is so living as Christ has enjoined.

Sharing in the Eucharist requires that we believe what the Church teaches, that we have been baptized “for the remission of sins” and finally live as disciples of Jesus Christ (“lives in accordance with the principles given us by Christ”). So, we need three things:

  1. Obedience to the teaching of the Church
  2. Repentance and baptism
  3. A life of intentional discipleship (“so living as Christ has enjoined”)

It only when all three of these are fulfilled Justin says, that we may “allowed to partake” of  the Eucharist  And we do this so that we can be joined to Christ  by “prayer of His word” making “our blood and flesh … transmutation[ed]” into “the flesh and blood of that Jesus who was made flesh.”

So, what is salvation for? Well it is for our transformation into another Jesus; we are saved so that we can become another Christ (alter Christus) not just metaphorically but actually by sharing in the divine nature (2 Peter 1:4).

Though this process of becoming another Christ is personal, It isn’t individualistic; it isn’t up to me alone to decide what it does or doesn’t mean to be a Christian. This is why, to return to Justin’s apology, when we gather to celebrate the Eucharist we begin by listening to the Scriptures:

[O]n the day called Sunday, all who live in cities or in the country gather together to one place, and the memoirs of the apostles or the writings of the prophets are read, as long as time permits; then, when the reader has ceased, the president verbally instructs, and exhorts to the imitation of these good things. Then we all rise together and pray.

It’s only after reflecting on the Scriptures and our common prayer to God that, Justin says, the eucharist is “distribution to each, and a participation of that over which thanks have been given, and to those who are absent a portion is sent by the deacons”

So our salvation is not for our becoming another Christ. It is also for becoming a member of the Church. My salvation then is not simply “for me” but “for you” as well.

If, as often happens, we stop here, we risk missing the fullness of what our salvation is for.

The late Fr Alexander Schmemann has pointed out that Orthodox parishes are self-absorbed and self-important. We do things, he says, for the Church that we would condemn if done for the individual.

Hard as it is to say it, it is often the case that parishes really only care for themselves. The individual Christian and the local parish are important but they aren’t, really, the point of our salvation.

God doesn’t save me simply to transform me into the likeness of His Son.

And while God calls me to live as a member of the Body of Christ, this isn’t really what salvation is for.

So what is salvation for? Back to St Justin:

And they who are well to do, and willing, give what each thinks fit; and what is collected is deposited with the president, who succours the orphans and widows and those who, through sickness or any other cause, are in want, and those who are in bonds and the strangers sojourning among us, and in a word takes care of all who are in need.

Compare this to what we usually hear about stewardship. We give what our heart tells us not to keep the church open but to care for those “in distress.”

What this means is that salvation is for “the life of the world.”

So now the question is, how do we put our salvation into practice?

In Christ,

+Fr Gregory

Good Works Matter

Zephaniah addressing people (French bible, 16th century).

December 3, 2015: The Holy Prophet Sophonias (Zephaniah), Our Righteous Father John, Bishop and Hesychast, Holy Martyrs Agapius and Seleucius, Theodore, Archbishop of Alexandria, Angelis the New Martyr, Karpos the Hieromartyr

Epistle: 1 Timothy 6:17-20

Gospel: Luke 20: 9-18

St Paul’s words to Timothy are startling in their clarity. After reminding the rich of the limits of their wealth he goes on to tell them to “be rich in good works, ready to give, willing to share” (v. 18, NKJV) And they are to do these things not simply because they are the right things to do but because by doing so the rich are “storing up for themselves a good foundation for the time to come, that they may lay hold on eternal life” (v. 19, NKJV).

Today almost 500 years after the Luther and in a popular religious culture formed by Evangelical Christianity, even Orthodox Christians are likely to find Paul’s language unsettling. He just sounds so commercial. I am to do good works—and especially to give to the poor—so that I can obtain eternal life. It’s almost like Paul is saying to us that we are to use the transitory wealth that “moth and rust destroy” and that “thieves break in and steal” to “lay up for yourselves treasures in heaven” that are everlasting (see Matthew 6: 19-21, NKJV).

And you’d be right. This is exactly what are called to do.

In the Liturgy of St Basil, for example, after recalling just some of the myriad good works that ask God from us, the priest asks to grant “for earthly things, heavenly [Cf. John 3:12]; for temporary ones, eternal [Cf. 2 Cor. 4:18], for corruptible, incorruptible” [Cf. 1 Cor.9:25]. Again, while this is scandalous to those formed according to the values of our popular religious culture, faith alone is not sufficient for salvation. We must have good works; “faith by itself, if it does not have works, is dead” (James 2:17, NKJV). This is the very point Jesus makes in the Gospel.

Our Lord tells the parable of the vineyard owner who expects from his tenants “that they might give him some of the fruit” (v. 10, NKJV). It’s worth noting that while the owner doesn’t expect his tenants to give everything—after all if they did how would could they survive much less care for the vineyard in the coming year—he does expect them to give something. The owner is not a greedy man but “indulgent” and even generous toward his tenants which make “more inexcusable their stubbornness (St Ambrose of Milan, “Exposition on the Gospel of Luke,” 9.23-24 in vol III of ACCS NT: Luke, p. 305).

Likewise, God in Jesus Christ is generous with me. I stumble and fall into sin, usually the same sin, again and again. And each time He is ready, eager really, to forgive me. Never once has God left me in my sin. Rather again and again He reaches down from heaven and lifts me up granting me an ever greater share of His life (see 2 Peter 1: 1-11). In return what He asks is that I do some good work for my neighbor.

Whatever we do, it will only be a small portion relative to what God has done for each of us. Though we are always the junior partner in the great mystery of salvation, we are still God’s partners, His co-workers in our own salvation and the salvation of the world (see 1 Corinthians 3:19, 2 Corinthians 6:1). This is why God asks us only “for some fruit.”

But make no mistake. No matter how small the good deed there is no salvation without works worthy of our faith.

In Christ,

+Fr Gregory

Vessels Overflowing With Divine Love

Sunday, October 4, 2015: Eighteenth Sunday after Pentecost & Second Sunday of Luke

Hieromartyr Hierotheos, bishop of Athens; Hieromartyr Peter of Capitolia in Syria; Martyrs Domnina and her daughters of Syria; Gurios, first archbishop of Kazan and Barsanouphios, bishop of Tver; and Martyrs Stephen (Stiljanovich) and Elizabeth of Serbia

Epistle: 2 Corinthians 9:6-11

Gospel: Luke 6:31-36

“But I say to you,” says the Lord, “love your enemies…do good to those who hate you, and pray for those who mistreat you” (Matt 5:44).

St Maximus the Confessor writes that Christ commands us to love our enemies and to do good to those who hate us so He can free us “from hatred, irritation, anger and rancor.” We are commanded to love Maximus says, so that love can free us from sin can make us worthy of “the supreme gift of perfect love.” We “cannot attain such love” unless we “imitate God and love all men equally” (First Century on Charity, 61).

Love then is both the cause and effect of our salvation.

At least in the material realm, cause and effect are generally clear. In the spiritual life, however, cause and effect travel together. As St Maximus tells us, love is both the goal of the spiritual life, and it’s only rule. We are called to love so that we can love; love is simultaneously the road we travel and the destination of our travels.

This means that we need to be attentive to our own experience. I need to ask myself, are my thoughts, words and deeds truly loving? In asking that question I need to pay special attention to the word “truly.” I need to have a standard to test my experience so that I don’t relay myself and my own limited understanding of whether or not what I’m doing is really and truly loving. Good intentions certainly matter but they aren’t enough. I must instead evaluate my experience in light of Holy Tradition; experience, like good intentions, is an insufficient standard for my life in Chirst.

Today we remember the hieromartyr Hierotheos the first bishop of Athens. Hierotheos received the Gospel from Apostle Paul when the latter preached at the Areopagus (Acts 17:16-34). But it’s the disciple of St Hierotheos, St Dionysius the Areopagite, who we turn to this morning to understand the place of love in the spiritual life.

St Dionysius says that creation is arranged hierarchically with some closer, others further, from God. And yet he says where ever we are in that hierarchy we are there as a vessel overflowing with divine love. The presence and the operation of God’s love is the very definition of who we are. This is why, and without prejudice to other biblical metaphors such as justification, the Church understands salvation as deification. This mean that we participate in the life of God; in St Peter’s words we have become “partakers of the divine nature” (2 Peter 1:4). Put another way, we become by grace what Christ is by nature.

Following from this, we talk about salvation as a therapeutic process. Not therapeutic in the medical or psychological sense . While healing through these means is also a gift from God. they are based on the cause and effect relationship appropriate to the material realm. No spiritual therapy transcends the processes of material causality.

As I said a moment ago, the overflowing presence of divine love is the very definition of who we each of us is personally. Sin is anything that would seek to constrain that love. It is important to keep in mind here I didn’t say reject that love or abolish that love but constrain it. God’s love can’t be undone but I can try to contain that love, to keep it from overflowing the vessel of my own heart. Hatred, irritation, anger, rancor and above all fear are the symptoms that I am doing just that—that I’m trying to keep God’s love to myself.

Seen in this light, Christ’s words in the Gospel—and the explanation of them offered by St Maximus—reveal an anthropological depth that we might have at first overlook.

To love our enemies, to do good to those who harm us and to lend without expectation of return, is simply to become who we are, the vessels of God’s overflowing love. To become who I am requires from me nothing else but that I remove the dams that I have placed around the love God continually pours into my heart.

The Apostle Paul’s  words also now take on a new depth of meaning.

To sow sparingly, that is to try (however futilely) to constrain the love of God, means that I cripple myself. I don’t become, I can’t become, the person God has created me to be if I try to make God’s love as my exclusive possession.

My brothers and sisters in Christ, God the Father has called us in His Son to be generous, cheerful, and even profligate in our love for Him and our neighbor. This can’t be forced—we are each of us only the size vessel that we are—but it is something that we can develop. What I mean by  this is that when we love we grow in our ability to love. And through love, we can become more fully ourselves. You see as we give ourselves away in love, our hearts becomes more expansive, they become larger vessels for God’s love. And a the vessel grows, God fills it more and more to overflowing.

So here’ s the choice.

Will I embrace life as a vessel and channel of God’s superabundant love? To do so means that I must accept myself and the life God gives me. Do I do this or do I instead embrace the lie that God’s love is for me and me alone?

My brothers and sisters in Christ, let us become the cheerful givers of God’s love. It is only in this way that we are healed of every sin, freed from every compulsion and are “enriched in every way” because it is only, in by way of love, that we become the friends of God and apostles of His great and overflowing love.

In Christ,

+Fr Gregory