Faith and Works

Paradigms are funny things. They can reveal the truth and they can hide the truth. When we attempt to explain salvation in terms of the courtroom (legalism, appeasement, penal substitution, transaction, etc.) we paint ourselves into some unfortunate corners. We end up saying things that rob the Scriptures of their life-creating message.

Take, for example, faith (grace) and works (law). Many of us have been taught that there is some kind of “either/or” relationship between the two. They cannot both be essential to salvation. One is and the other is “extra” so to speak. We somehow think that essential participation on our part in salvation is out of bounds or an affront to God.

But, is this true? If we are speaking in legalistic terms the answer is yes. It must be. We are relegated to the status of spectators.

However, if we are speaking in terms of authentic personhood and right relationship that is essentially one of union and transformation into the likeness of Christ, our real participation is essential. I remember one of my New Testament professors saying that the relationship between faith and works is essentially paradoxical. He said, “…to speak about it in any other way is blasphemy to the very heart of the gospel. For it is true that we cannot be saved by our works but we cannot be saved without them. What is more, we cannot keep our rulers when it comes to attempting to measure how much of each are involved.”

I remember how freeing those sentiments of my professor were to me. I realized that God was, in Christ, and always will, somehow be calling forth my essential participation in His saving work, however meager and misshapen. What is more, “my” salvation really wasn’t “mine” in some individualistic sense but participation in the salvation of all humanity and all of creation. So, there were myriads of essential participants in God’s saving of me. I also realized that salvation was not some nice neat “if/then,” “this and then this,” linear progression of cause and effect or something. Time and the progression of decisions seemed to become, what a new friend has called one big “pulsating point” that includes everything and everyone all at once.

Ascetic obedience in the form of self-emptying love is salvific for, at its very heart, there is the dynamic “movement” from life to death to life – death and resurrection. (See the chapter entitled “The Poetics of the Resurrection,” in The Grace of Incorruption, by Donald Sheehan.)

Thus, the demarcation between salvation and sanctification is artificial and does more to hinder our maturation in Christ Jesus that it does to foster it. This also applies to the false demarcation between grace and law. When rightly understood, faith, works, grace, and law are not at odds. They are facets of the mysterious salvific work of God and man — the God.man.

The Scriptures simply do not narrate a story of salvation as the work of God without the essential dimension of human participation and the requirement that we embrace it and live it as essentially “Mysterious”. The most obvious example is the Theotokos but there are many more… If faith and works are not essential to salvation then the incarnation would be impossible. Jesus would have to materialized out of thin air or some such nonsense.

Such a message of “both/and” when it comes to faith and works is risky. It can be misunderstood and misapplied. The temptation is to adjust the message to make it safe from such misappropriation to those who receive it. But, in so doing, we rob the message of its deepest power and message – the reestablishment of union in all relationships. This union recreates us as persons in every aspect which includes the exercise of the will and how we actually live our life.

St. Paul’s letters are fully of examples in which the apostle is having to reiterate the mysterious “both/and” relationship between faith and works not the articulation of an “either/or” relationship between the two.

St. John Chrysostom speaks to the “both/and” relationship in this way in commenting on the Epistle to the Ephesians:

“God’s mission was not to save people in order that they may remain barren or inert. For Scripture says that faith has saved us. Put better: Since God willed it, faith has saved us. Now in what case, tell me, does faith save without itself doing anything at all? Faith’s workings themselves are a gift of God, lest anyone should boast. What then is Paul saying? Not that God has forbidden works but that he has forbidden us to be justified by works. No one, Paul says, is justified by works, precisely in order that the grace and benevolence of God may become apparent.”

Illumination

Repentance opens up the space to receive Illumination, which is the gift of God’s grace to behold the truth of God, the creation, circumstances, and persons. As we accompany this illumination with our grateful obedience, in whatever, form is most appropriate, we are deified.

“Everything that lives and breathes is sacred and beautiful in the eyes of God. The whole world is a sacrament. The entire created cosmos is a burning bush of God’s uncreated energies. And humankind stands as a priest before the altar of creation, as microcosm and mediator. Such is the true nature of things; or, as an Orthodox hymn describes it, ‘the truth of things,’ if only we have the eyes of faith to see it.” -His All Holiness Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew, quoted in, Cosmic Grace, Humble Prayer, p 185, edited by John Chryssavgis.

Saint’s Journey

A friend shared this quote with me today. I believe it is worth making available.

“Miracles may show me the saint, they do not show me how he became a saint: and that is what I want to see. It is not the completed process that intrigues me: it is the process itself… Tell me what was churning in his soul as he battled his way up from selfishness and the allurements of sin to the great heart of God.” – M. Raymond, O.C.S.O, quoted in Seeking God, The Way of St. Benedict, by Esther de Waal

Those Who Know Their Need Shout All the Louder

The beginning, middle, and end of salvation is the knowledge of our need. Acknowledge of illness is the beginning, middle, and end of healing and wellness. So complain that after conversion the use of “sinner language” is needlessly negative and opt for what they call “positive confession.” I disagree. The danger of positivism is falling into the trap of failing to acknowledge our unceasing need for the Savior.

Let us cry (shout) out all the more “…have mercy on me a sinner!” What could be more hopeful and positive?!

16 And the scribes of the Pharisees, when they saw that he was eating with sinners and tax collectors, said to his disciples, “Why does he eat with tax collectors and sinners?” 17 And when Jesus heard it, he said to them, “Those who are well have no need of a physician, but those who are sick; I came not to call the righteous, but sinners.” (Mark 2:16-17 – RSV)
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46 And they came to Jericho; and as he was leaving Jericho with his disciples and a great multitude, Bartimae′us, a blind beggar, the son of Timae′us, was sitting by the roadside. 47 And when he heard that it was Jesus of Nazareth, he began to cry out and say, “Jesus, Son of David, have mercy on me!” 48 And many rebuked him, telling him to be silent; but he cried out all the more, “Son of David, have mercy on me!” 49 And Jesus stopped and said, “Call him.” And they called the blind man, saying to him, “Take heart; rise, he is calling you.”50 And throwing off his mantle he sprang up and came to Jesus. 51 And Jesus said to him, “What do you want me to do for you?” And the blind man said to him, “Master, let me receive my sight.” 52 And Jesus said to him, “Go your way; your faith has made you well.” And immediately he received his sight and followed him on the way. (Mark 10:46-52 – RSV)

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If anyone recognizes the darkness of his blindness… let him cry with his whole mind, let him say: “Jesus, son of David, have mercy on me!” But let us hear what happened when the blind man was crying out: “And the people ahead rebuked him, that he should be silent” (Lk 18,39). What is meant by ‘the people ahead’ as Jesus comes if not the crowds of bodily desires and the uproar caused by our vices? Before Jesus comes into our hearts they disturb our thoughts by tempting us, and they thoroughly muddle the words in our hearts as we pray. We often wish to be converted to the Lord when we have committed some wrong. When we try to pray earnestly against the wrongs we have committed, images of our sins come into our hearts. They obscure our inner vision, they disturb our minds and overwhelm the sound of our petition…

But let us hear what the blind man, still unenlightened, did. “But he cried out all the more: ‘Son of David, have mercy on me’”… In proportion to the tumult of our unspiritual thoughts must be our eagerness to persist in prayer… It is surely necessary that the more harshly our heart’s voice is repressed, the more firmly it must persist to overcome the uproar of forbidden thoughts and break in on our Lord’s gracious ears by its intrepid perseverance. I believe that everyone observes what I am saying in himself, and herself. When we turn our minds from this world to God, when we are converted to the work of prayer, what we once enjoyed doing we later endure in our prayer as demanding and burdensome. Holy desire only with difficulty banishes the recollection of them from our hearts… But when we persist ardently in our prayer, we fix Jesus to our hearts as he passes by. Hence: “But Jesus stopped and ordered him to be brought to him” (v.40).
Saint Gregory the Great (c.540-604), Homilies on the Gospel

As Don Schwager asks in his reflection on this passage: “Do you recognize your need for God’s healing grace and do you seek Jesus out, like Bartimaeus, with persistent faith and trust in his goodness and mercy? ‘Lord Jesus, may I never fail to recognize my need for your grace. Help me to take advantage of the opportunities you give me to seek your presence daily and to listen attentively to your word.'”

Love Your Enemies

43 “You have heard that it was said, ‘You shall love your neighbor and hate your enemy.’ 44 But I say to you, Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, 45 so that you may be sons of your Father who is in heaven; for he makes his sun rise on the evil and on the good, and sends rain on the just and on the unjust. 46 For if you love those who love you, what reward have you? Do not even the tax collectors do the same? 47 And if you salute only your brethren, what more are you doing than others? Do not even the Gentiles do the same? 48 You, therefore, must be perfect, as your heavenly Father is perfect. (Ma. 5.43-48)

19 Beloved, never avenge yourselves, but leave it to the wrath of God; for it is written, “Vengeance is mine, I will repay, says the Lord.” 20 No, “if your enemy is hungry, feed him; if he is thirsty, give him drink; for by so doing you will heap burning coals upon his head.” 21 Do not be overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good. (Ro. 12.19-21)

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“We should not desire the death of a sinner, but his repentance. Nothing so grieves the Lord, Who suffered on the Cross for sinners, than when we pray to Him for the death of a sinner, thereby to remove the sinner from our path. It happened that the Apostle Carpus lost his patience and began to pray that God would send down death upon two sinful men: one a pagan and the other an apostate from the Faith. Then the Lord Christ Himself appeared to Carpus and said: “Strike me; I am prepared to be crucified again for the salvation of mankind.” St. Carpus related this event to St. Dionysius the Areopagite, who wrote it down as a lesson to all in the Church that prayers are needed for sinners to be saved and not for them to be destroyed, for the Lord is not willing that any should perish, but that all should come to repentance (2 Peter 3:9).”
–The Prologue, May 26th

God

God belongs to all free beings. He is the life of all, the salvation of all—faithful and unfaithful, just and unjust, pious and impious, passionate and dispassionate, monks and seculars, wise and simple, healthy and sick, young and old—just as the diffusion of light, the sight of the sun, and the changes of the weather are for all alike; ‘for there is no respect of persons with God.”
–The Ladder of Divine Ascent, Step 1.3, by St. John Climacus

The Love of God is Shed Abroad

“The love of God is shed abroad in our hearts by the Holy Spirit which is given to us.” (Romans 5:5)

“Love is joy, and love anoints the heart of man with joy. Brethren, love is power, and love anoints the heart of man with power. Love is peace, and love anoints the heart of man with peace. And from joy, power and peace, courage is born, and love anoints the heart of man with courage.

The love of God, like a fragrant oil, is poured out upon our hearts in no other way than by the Holy Spirit, the All-gentle and All-powerful Spirit. Though we are completely undeserving of it, the Spirit of God is poured out upon us: the love of God is shed in our hearts in the Mystery [Sacrament] of Chrismation. However, in time we neglect this love and by sin we alienate ourselves from God and fall into the disease of spiritual paralysis. And the Holy Spirit, unwilling to abide in an impure vessel, distances Himself from our heart. When the Holy Spirit distances Himself from us, then joy, power, peace and courage likewise depart from us immediately. We become sorrowful, weakened, disturbed and fearful. But the All-good Spirit of God only distances Himself from us; He does not abandon us completely. He does not abandon us, but rather offers us, as sick men, remedies through the Mystery of Repentance and the Mystery of Holy Communion. When we again cleanse ourselves through the Mysteries [Sacraments] of Repentance and Communion, then He, the Holy Spirit of God, again abides in us, and the love of God is poured out upon our hearts. We fall, we rise, we fall, and we rise! When we fall, the Spirit of God stands by us and raises us, if we desire to be raised. And when we are raised, the Spirit of God stands within us all until, through our sinfulness and foolishness, we fall again. Thus, in this life we interchangeably become a fertile field and a wilderness, sons of repentance and prodigal sons, fullness and emptiness, light and darkness.

O All-good Holy Spirit of God, do not depart from us, neither when we want You nor when we do not want You. Be with us all the time, until our death.

To Thee be glory and praise forever. Amen.”
–The Prologue, May 24th

The Spirit Accomplishes What the Father Wills

“When the Lord told his disciples to go and teach all nations and baptize them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, he conferred on them the power of giving men new life in God.

He had promised through the prophets that in these last days he would pour out his Spirit on his servants and handmaids, and that they would prophesy. So when the Son of God became the Son of Man, the Spirit also descended upon him, becoming accustomed in this way to dwelling with the human race, to living in men and to inhabiting God’s creation. The Spirit accomplished the Father’s will in men who had grown old in sin, and gave them new life in Christ.

Luke says that the Spirit came down on the disciples at Pentecost, after the Lord’s ascension, with power to open the gates of life to all nations and to make known to them the new covenant. So it was that men of every language joined in singing one song of praise to God, and scattered tribes, restored to unity by the Spirit, were offered to the Father as the first-fruits of all the nations.

This was why the Lord had promised to send the Advocate: he was to prepare us as an offering to God. Like dry flour, which cannot become one lump of dough, one loaf of bread, without moisture, we who are many could not become one in Christ Jesus without the water that comes down from heaven. And like parched ground, which yields no harvest unless it receives moisture, we who were once like a waterless tree could never have lived and borne fruit without this abundant rainfall from above. Through the baptism that liberates us from change and decay we have become one in body; through the Spirit we have become one in soul.

The Spirit of wisdom and understanding, the Spirit of counsel and strength, the Spirit of knowledge and the fear of God came down upon the Lord, and the Lord in turn gave this Spirit to his Church, sending the Advocate from heaven into all the world into which, according to his own words, the devil too had been cast down like lightning.

If we are not to be scorched and made unfruitful, we need the dew of God. Since we have our accuser, we need an advocate as well. And so the Lord in his pity for man, who had fallen into the hands of brigands, having himself bound up his wounds and left for his care two coins bearing the royal image, entrusted him to the Holy Spirit. Now, through the Spirit, the image and inscription of the Father and the Son have been given to us, and it is our duty to use the coin committed to our charge and make it yield a rich profit for the Lord.”
-from “Against the Heresies,” by St Irenaeus

More on Judging By Appearances and Experience

Continuing on the theme of judging by appearances and our own experience… Here is today’s scriptural reflection from the Dynamis site that more deeply sheds light on the issue… We must affirm that on a personal and communal basis we are guided by the Spirit of Truth not by our convictions regarding appearances or the validity of our own experience.

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Tuesday of the Sixth Week of Pascha (May 19, 2015)

Some New Thing: Acts 17:19-28, especially vss. 24-25: “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. Nor is He worshiped with men’s hands, as though He needed anything, since He gives to all life, breath, and all things.” The Apostle Paul, “as his custom was” (vs. 17:2), visited the synagogues in Athens (vs. 17) and also the agora – the city’s market center. There the masses mingled with philosophers from the classical schools, spending “their time in nothing else but either to tell or to hear some new thing” (vs. 21).

As the primary bearers of Hellenistic culture, the Athenian philosophers naturally wish to bring the visiting apostle to a gathering at the Areopagus or Mars Hill (vs. 19). According to Saint Luke, the Stoics and Epicureans who “encountered him” (vs. 18) are especially curious about his “new doctrine” (vs. 19). Among the pagan schools of philosophy, these two dedicated the greatest effort to illumining the uncertainties of life and seeking truth concerning the divine. However, their efforts were based solely on human reasoning.

Saint Paul’s words undercut the Athenians’ basic assumption that the ultimate truth about life can be found by men through reason, using trial and error. We recall that in the Garden of Eden the serpent suggests this very approach, promising Adam and Eve “you will be like gods” (Gn 3:6).

Ultimately the Church, in the person of the Apostle Paul, brings the true light to Hellenized world, which “received the heavenly Spirit” and acquired “the true faith, worshiping the undivided Trinity,” as we sing during the liturgy after holy communion. This new faith made profound advances upon Western culture until the Enlightenment.

Gradually, the idea that mankind has the capacity to discern its own truth gradually regained ascendancy. Today, we are once again living in a world where the ancient lie rules. Scientific materialism and secular humanism openly attack the truth which Christ and His apostles taught.

What Paul shares with the Athenian philosophers is truly “some new thing” (Acts 17:21): the Word of life, sent by God’s own initiative, to enlighten mankind (vss. 30-32). The Athenians’ “unknown God” (vs. 23) is the Christ who has revealed Himself to the Church.

Christ is disclosed as the Maker of all things, visible and invisible (vss. 23-29). Saint Paul proclaims that the Lord has revealed Himself openly. As the psalmist says, “God is the Lord and hath appeared unto us” (Ps 117:26).

The ancient Hellenists and modern materialists alike believe we can decipher “the unity of all things contrary to the appearance of diversity.” Metropolitan John Zizioulas repudiates this view and its corollary position that God does not rule over the material world since “He too is bound by . . . necessity to the world and the world to Him” (Being as Communion, p. 29).

Saint Paul’s new thing directly counters this error, for he declares, “God . . . made the world and everything in it, since He is Lord of heaven and earth” (vs. 24). God needs nothing, for “He gives to all life, breath, and all things” (vs. 25). The Creator existentially contradicts the ancient and modern lie that leads mankind on the impossible quest to know everything.

The apostle also addresses a related lie, initiated by Plato: “The world does not exist for the sake of man, but man exists for its sake.” Herein we find a denial of God’s infinite freedom as well as His gift of free will to us as persons who are intended to be “like” God.

Instead, the Apostle Paul says, “We are also His offspring,” i.e., free beings (vs. 28).  If we have accepted the lies of materialism, let us hasten to repent (vs. 30)!

O Lord, Thou hast made all things new.  Help us live in Thy likeness to eternal life.

Judging By Appearances and Experience

I can (and do more than not) fall into the trap of basing my convictions regarding the faith based on “what I experienced” positively and negatively. Another word for that trap is “relativism” and “subjectivism”. My reliance should be on the faithfulness of God in the person of the Holy Spirit to reveal and affirm the truth of my experience and the guidance it can provide regarding right faith and action.

But, even so, it is important for me to realize that it is not my experience that is really the criteria but the word of the Holy Spirit in and through my experience. Experience is an essential means (a sacramental one) for the revelation of truth. No question. But, it is not the governor of my convictions regarding the truth. The truth is “communicated” to me in and through my experience and I “communicate” with “the Truth” in and through my experience (think the Divine Liturgy). I find that I need to be extremely careful not to let my negative and positive feelings and convictions regarding my experiences of the past, and therefore my judgments about their relative validity to guide me, influence how I view the truth-bearing witness of my present experience. This includes appearances. Things are not necessarily what they appear to be to me. I must not judge by appearances. It is the Holy Spirit who reveals the truth regarding my past and my present and my future experiences.

“Truly, truly, I say to you, if you ask anything of the Father, he will give it to you in my name. 24 Hitherto you have asked nothing in my name; ask, and you will receive, that your joy may be full.” (Jn 16.23b-24)

Every time I speak about prayer, it seems to me that I hear in your heart certain human reflections that I have often heard, even in my own heart. Since we never stop praying, how come we so rarely seem to experience the fruit of prayer? We have the impression that we come out of prayer like we entered into it; no one answers us with even one word, gives us anything at all; we have the impression that we have labored in vain. But what does the Lord say in the gospel? “Stop judging by appearances and make a just judgment.” (Jn 7:24) What is a just judgment other than a judgment of faith? For “the just man shall live by faith.” (Gal 3:11) So follow the judgment of faith rather than your experience, for faith does not deceive, whereas experience can lead into error.

And what is the truth of faith other than that the Son of God himself promised: “If you are ready to believe that you will receive whatever you ask for in prayer, it shall be done for you.” (Mk 11:24) Thus, may no one among you, Brothers, consider prayer to be a small thing. For I assure you, the one to whom it is addressed does not consider it a small thing; even before it has left our mouth, he has had it written down in his book. Without the slightest doubt, we can be sure that God will either give us what we are asking him or he will give us something that he knows to be better. For “we do not know how to pray as we ought” (Rom 8:26), but God has compassion on our ignorance and he receives our prayer with kindness… So “take delight in the Lord, and he will grant you your heart’s requests.” (Ps 37:4) Saint Bernard (1091-1153), Sermons for Lent, no. 5.5