Witness – Participation in the Life of God

As you know, the word witness corresponds to the Greek word “martyr” in the New Testament. And, there are occasions in the New Testament when martyrdom is the meaning even though other words are used. The passage from 1 Peter is a good example.

The meaning is clear. We participate in the life of God and receive this one and only life that is life, by dying to death portraying itself as life. Jesus made it clear on some many occasions that when we die in this way, we live. We know life because we know “Christ and Him crucified.”

It needs to be understood that such dying is not simply the relinquishing of evil intention or actions. It is the pursuit of virtuous intentions and actions. This includes, obviously, active identification/participation in the lives of others through such things as the famous “seven works of mercy”:

  • To feed the hungry
  • To give drink to the thirsty
  • To clothe the naked
  • To shelter the homeless
  • To visit the sick
  • To visit the imprisoned
  • To bury the dead

But let’s not limit it to seven. How about just being a non-judgmental listening ear? How about watching the kids of a mom who needs to spend some time caring for herself? How about making progress on that “honey do” list without being nagged? How about hoping against all of the signs that someone will never change and continuing to invest ourselves in their life in appropriate ways? Or how about letting go of saving people, in the name of Christ Jesus, and joining Christ Jesus in His saving of them? How about …?

It needs to be added that our appropriate suffering in the flesh – martyrdom – is not self-chosen. It is not doing “what seems right in our own mind.” It begins and ends with the revelation of the Holy Spirit and the confirmation of the Body of Christ. The action results from appropriate adjustments and grace of the same Holy Spirit and support of the same Body of Christ. All of this is what makes such an authentic obedience possible.

These are the deeds of a martyr. This is also what it means to be “suffering in the flesh.” These are the deeds of Christ Jesus.

Let’s remember that the 1 Peter, in which this passage about “suffering in the flesh” appears is also the one in which the apostle proclaims us to be “partakers of the divine nature.”

Here is a wonderful “Dynamis” reflection on the matter. (By the way, I recommend reading this grace-filled daily reflection. “Dynamis” has blessed me for almost 20 years! It owe a great degree of my understanding of the Holy Tradition to this wonderful publication.)

Here also is a reflection by St. Thomas Aquinas on the matter at hand…

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Suffering in the Flesh: 1 Peter 4:1-11, especially vss. 1-2: “He who has suffered in the flesh has ceased from sin, that he no longer should live the rest of his time in the flesh for the lusts of men, but for the will of God.”

Earlier in this same epistle, Saint Peter declares that Christ suffered death “in the flesh” purposely, in order “to bring us to God” (vs. 3:18). Now, when he tells us to “arm [ourselves] also with the same mind” (vs. 4:1), he is urging us to embrace an intention similar to the Lord’s.

We should not read the expression “suffered in the flesh” as applicable only to martyrs and confessors, for a vital truth would then be lost. Suffering is common to everyone and takes many forms: persecution, injury, disease, financial reverses, rejection. While Saint Peter’s primary concern throughout his first epistle is with physical persecution, he is well aware that suffering in the flesh extends beyond the afflictions imposed on those who died for Christ.

This suffering may also come to one who has indulged in sinful living, but now withdraws for Christ’s sake and ceases to “run . . . in the same flood of dissipation” (vs. 4). As we would expect, the Apostle advises us against living “in the flesh for the lusts of men” (vs. 2). We should avoid “lewdness, lusts, drunkenness, revelries, drinking parties, and abominable idolatries” (vs. 3), determined to avoid all such indulgence.

But social isolation may follow when we choose to stop living “in . . . dissipation” (vs. 4). According to The Orthodox Study Bible, Saint Peter is talking about the vices then prevalent in Asia Minor, “where excessive drinking, along with unspeakable practices, took place in connection with the worship of various deities.” Let us bear in mind that these vices are well known today, even though they are no longer part of the worship of any deities!

As a fledgling disciple, Saint Peter learned the captivating power of a sinful mind. Christ tells us that “from within, out of the heart of men, proceed evil thoughts, adulteries, fornications, murders, thefts, covetousness, wickedness, deceit, lewdness, an evil eye, blasphemy, pride, foolishness. All these evil things come from within and defile a man” (Mk 7:21-23).

Among the Fathers of the Church, Saint John Climacus commends the pain of struggling for chastity and purity, especially since we have a vital hope of ceasing from sin (1 Pt 4:1-2). “Purity means that we put on the angelic nature. Purity is the longed-for house of Christ and the earthly heaven of the heart. Purity is a supernatural denial of nature. . . . He is pure . . . [who] expels fleshly love with divine love, and . . . has extinguished the fire of passion by the fire of heaven” (Ladder of Divine Ascent, 15.1-3, 7, p. 104).

Keep in mind that Saint John does not limit the virtue of chastity to sexual purity, but rather asserts that “chastity is the name which is common to all the virtues.” In our struggle to gain purity, God helps us take certain steps that are necessarily accompanied by pain. We observe our passions, repent sincerely, and confess thoroughly; we undertake fasting, abandon self-reliance, and strive for unceasing prayer.

“Let no one thoroughly trained in purity attribute its attainment to himself, for it is impossible for anyone to conquer his own nature,” Saint John cautions. “When nature is defeated, it should be recognized that this is due to the presence of Him who is above nature.” Indeed, we never endure such sufferings apart from God, but rather in the presence of His love.

I am caught in the depths of sins. O Savior, draw me out of passion, and save me! – Orthros for Sunday of the Prodigal Son

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The Cross exemplifies every virtue

Why did the Son of God have to suffer for us? There was a great need, and it can be considered in a twofold way: in the first place, as a remedy for sin, and secondly, as an example of how to act.

It is a remedy, for, in the face of all the evils which we incur on account of our sins, we have found relief through the passion of Christ. Yet, it is no less an example, for the passion of Christ completely suffices to fashion our lives. Whoever wishes to live perfectly should do nothing but disdain what Christ disdained on the cross and desire what he desired, for the cross exemplifies every virtue.

If you seek the example of love: Greater love than this no man has, than to lay down his life for his friends. Such a man was Christ on the cross. And if he gave his life for us, then it should not be difficult to bear whatever hardships arise for his sake.

If you seek patience, you will find no better example than the cross. Great patience occurs in two ways: either when one patiently suffers much, or when one suffers things which one is able to avoid and yet does not avoid. Christ endured much on the cross, and did so patiently, because when he suffered he did not threaten; he was led like a sheep to the slaughter and he did not open his mouth. Therefore Christ’s patience on the cross was great. In patience let us run for the prize set before us, looking upon Jesus, the author and perfecter of our faith who, for the joy set before him, bore his cross and despised the shame.

If you seek an example of humility, look upon the crucified one, for God wished to be judged by Pontius Pilate and to die.

If you seek an example of obedience, follow him who became obedient to the Father even unto death. For just as by the disobedience of one man, namely, Adam, many were made sinners, so by the obedience of one man, many were made righteous.

If you seek an example of despising earthly things, follow him who is the King of kings and the Lord of lords, in whom are hidden all the treasures of wisdom and knowledge. Upon the cross he was stripped, mocked, spat upon, struck, crowned with thorns, and given only vinegar and gall to drink.

Do not be attached, therefore, to clothing and riches, because they divided my garments among themselves. Nor to honours, for he experienced harsh words and scourgings. Nor to greatness of rank, for weaving a crown of thorns they placed it on my head. Nor to anything delightful, for in my thirst they gave me vinegar to drink. From a conference by Saint Thomas Aquinas

 

 

 

 

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The True Church – In But Not Of the World

In a recent post, I spoke of, what I believe to be, an aspect of the “true Church,” namely, “Giving it your all with perseverance.” I want to add another aspect to the list, “life witness.” Now, when I use the word “witness,” I intend for you to understand that I bring to it the connotations of the Greek word, “martyr.” When you read the word “witness” in your New Testament, most likely the Greek word is martyr.

I do not want to take the space in this post to give a detailed exposition of the threads of meaning that this connection exposes. Suffice it to say, martyrdom in some form or another (as the Holy Spirit determines), is the inevitable shape that true discipleship in Christ takes when we are “giving it our all with perseverance.” In short, martyrdom is simply dying to all that is not of Christ in your life – interior and exterior – and living in more and more practical conformity with all that is of Christ – interiorly and exteriorly.

Several passages from the New Testament will take us deeper into the nature of the true Church, which is martyrdom.

“No one can serve two masters; for either he will hate the one and love the other, or he will be devoted to the one and despise the other. You cannot serve God and mammon. Matthew 6.24

“But take heed to yourselves; for they will deliver you up to councils; and you will be beaten in synagogues; and you will stand before governors and kings for my sake, to bear testimony before them.  And the gospel must first be preached to all nations. And when they bring you to trial and deliver you up, do not be anxious beforehand what you are to say; but say whatever is given you in that hour, for it is not you who speak, but the Holy Spirit. And brother will deliver up brother to death, and the father his child, and children will rise against parents and have them put to death; and you will be hated by all for my name’s sake. But he who endures to the end will be saved.” Mark 13.9-13

“But now I am coming to thee; and these things I speak in the world, that they may have my joy fulfilled in themselves. I have given them thy word; and the world has hated them because they are not of the world, even as I am not of the world. I do not pray that thou shouldst take them out of the world, but that thou shouldst keep them from the evil one. They are not of the world, even as I am not of the world. Sanctify them in the truth; thy word is truth. As thou didst send me into the world, so I have sent them into the world. And for their sake I consecrate myself, that they also may be consecrated in truth.” John 17.13-19

“Unfaithful creatures! Do you not know that friendship with the world is enmity with God? Therefore whoever wishes to be a friend of the world makes himself an enemy of God.” James 4.4

Our martyrdom, in essence, begins with the commitment to no longer live according to the standards and priorities of “this world.” We are citizens of “another world” – the Kingdom of God – which has been and is breaking in to the kingdom which is “this world,” and transforming it (according to ways that are appropriate to God’s economy of purpose) to the Kingdom of Heaven. The “flow” is toward the consummation of the Kingdom of Christ no matter what appearances may indicate. The gates of hell shall not (are not) prevailing against this progress no matter how hidden and subtle.

Our commitment, according to our Lord and Master, Christ Jesus and the “witness” of the Holy Spirit within us, is to decide at all times and in all places with all persons, to make our decisions and live in identifiable ways that are in agreement with the standards and priorities of the Kingdom of God.  It is coming to the point where, nothing less than this is acceptable to us in our own life before we even begin to say or do anything about our conviction of this in the lives of others (I must be actively addressing my own stuff before I presume to speak to others about taking care of what I believe to be their stuff! Don’t get me wrong. I am not advocating letting sin slide. Just the opposite. I am advocating NOT letting sin slide but taking care of it in our own life first.).

Such a commitment to not “give in” to the standards of this world is, of course, huge. But, I at least, cannot rationalize it away. I cannot pretend that it is anything less than the true baseline of, as Watchman Nee termed it, “the normal Christian life.” Dietrich Bonhoeffer, in his classic, The Cost of Discipleship, called anything less than such a commitment, “cheap grace.”

Will we fall back into the old ways, the ways of the world? Will it be painful and feel artificial and seem many times like no progress is being made? Yes. The Church Fathers make it abundantly clear that “walking in the light” – living the Kingdom life beginning here and now, in the midst of this world, is tantamount to warfare. Warfare of an invisible kind with the “passions of the flesh” that have reigned within us unchallenged.

The passions of pride, self-love, and vainglory desire to keep us enslaved, sowing in the soul confusion, delusion, and vain reasoning. When we realize this is the case and begin to oppose the “powers and principalities” that war against Christ within us, we must intentionally lay aside all our acquired learning, every opinion about God and ourselves. We must allow the Holy Spirit through use of the Holy Tradition, “which has great holy power and is filled with divine wisdom,” teach and conform us to the likeness of Christ Jesus.

Because the roots of the “ways of this world” have grown deep and strong into the depths of our souls, the journey of spiritual healing and maturing will be lifelong. Our Lord made it abundantly clear: “Enter by the narrow gate; for the gate is wide and the way is easy, that leads to destruction, and those who enter by it are many. For the gate is narrow and the way is hard, that leads to life, and those who find it are few.” (Matthew 7.13-14)

We need to become as children not just when we are new to the faith. No. We must remain teachable children and grow up into the kind of maturity that remains deeply teachable. The Holy Tradition calls this characteristic, humility. St. Paul is speaking of this character trait when he says, “If any man thinks that he knows anything, he knows nothing yet as he ought to know.” (1 Corinthians 8.2)

You and I will lapse into times of forgetfulness and revert to the ways of the world. Then, all of a sudden we will be awakened out of our stupor by the Holy Spirit. But we must, never give up. We must never let ourselves become despondent or give in to feelings or thoughts of resignation or self-condemnation. Breaking the power of the ways of the world in our life is hard work that takes time to accomplish. The healthiest thing to do at the moment we realize our lapse is to cry out to God in thanksgiving for the merciful “wake-up call,” agree with the truth God has shown us, re-turn to our right mind (truthful mind) regarding our life, and move forward from that point with great thanksgiving.

The old ways cannot be overcome by our own strength. We must be being continually strengthened and equipped by the Holy Spirit. But, it is also true that the old ways cannot be overcome without the exertion of our will with regularity and constancy. It is the union of our will with the strengthening and equipping will of the Holy Spirit that can successfully overcome the power of the spiritual inertia of the old “frame of reference” and our tendency to “fall back” into the way of life we have forsaken.

You and I will not “win friends and influence people” according to “this world.” But, we may be the leaven of salvation to many. St. Seraphim of Sarov, the 18th century Russian saint, greeted all with these words: “Acquire a peaceful spirit, and around you thousands will be saved.”

The most important questions that the true Church of Christ Jesus over the last two millennia asks us are: Do you know what the Lord desires for you to do? Are you doing it? If not, why not? When will you do it? What price are you paying for the delay? Are you, in short, setting your hand to the plow and looking back?

Be blessed by the “witness” of St. Mamas, who is commemorated today…

The Holy Martyr Mamas of Caesarea – September 2 — Mamas, was born in Paphlagonia of renowned Christian parents, Theodotus and Rufina. His parents were cast into prison for Christ’s name. His father died first in prison, and as soon as Rufina bore Mamas, she also died. Thus the newborn child was left alone between the dead bodies of his parents. However, God the Provider sent an angel to a noble widow, Ammia. Ammia saw the angel in a dream: he told her to go to the prison and take the child in. The local eparch granted Ammia permission to bury the dead and to take the child to her home. When Mamas reached his fifth year, he began to talk and his first word was “Mama!”-for which he received the name “Mamas.” In school, Mamas displayed unusual intelligence, and as he had been reared in a Christian spirit, he did not hide his faith, but confessed it to the other children and laughed at the idols. During the reign of Aurelian there was a bitter persecution of Christians. The pagans did not even spare the Christian children. Mamas was fifteen years old when he was brought before the emperor. The emperor told him that he needed only to deny Christ verbally. Mamas replied: “Neither in my heart nor with my lips will I renounce my God and King, Jesus Christ.” The emperor ordered him to be beaten, burned with torches, and finally thrown into the sea. But an angel of God saved him, and took him to a high mountain near Caesarea. There he lived in solitude and prayer. Even the wild beasts were tamed by his sanctity. He was finally discovered by his persecutors and subjected to torture again. When he had overcome torture both by fire and by wild beasts, St. Mamas was run through with a trident by a pagan priest. Thus, in A.D. 275, he gave his holy soul to God, to Whom he had been faithful during all of his tortures. From his relics many healings of the sick have taken place. (The Prologue from Ochrid, pg. 279)

I know, I haven’t given you or myself much “wiggle room.” But then, neither does Jesus. The character of our martyrdom is NOT determined by us. It is decided by God. Your decision and mine is whether or not to embrace it with gratitude, humility (a truly repentant attitude – “joyful sorrow”), and perseverance when it becomes known. This we do, it must be stated, in the context of the visible and invisible fellowship of the saints. To God be the glory…

Fr. Thomas