Friday, September 27, 2019

Patristic Wisdom: Looking to St. Michael and All Angels

Then the seventy returned with joy, saying, “Lord, even the demons are subject to us in Your name.” And He said to them, “I saw Satan fall like lightning from heaven. Behold, I give you the authority to trample on serpents and scorpions, and over all the power of the enemy, and nothing shall by any means hurt you. Nevertheless do not rejoice in this, that the spirits are subject to you, but rather rejoice because your names are written in heaven.” (Luke 10:17–20)

The authority, however, which they bore to reprove evil spirits, and the power of crushing Satan, was not given them that they might themselves so much be regarded with admiration, as that Christ might be glorified by their means, and be believed on by those whom they taught, as by nature God, and the Son of God; and invested with so great glory and supremacy and might, as to be even able to bestow upon others the power of trampling Satan under their feet.

But they, it says, in that they were counted worthy of so great grace, “returned rejoicing, and saying, Lord, even the demons are subject to us in Your name.” For they confess the authority of Him Who honored them, and wonder at the supremacy and greatness of His power. But they seem to have rejoiced, not so much because they were ministers of His message, and had been counted worthy of apostolic honors, as because they had worked miracles. But it would have been better for them to have reflected, that He gave them the power to work miracles, not that they might be regarded by men with admiration on this account, but rather that what they preached might be believed, the Holy Spirit bearing them witness by divine signs. It would have been better, therefore, had they manifestly rejoiced on account of those rather who had been won by their means, and had made this a cause of exultation. Just as also the very wise Paul gloried in those who had been called by his means, saying, “My joy and my crown.” But they said nothing at all of this kind, but rejoiced only in that they had been able to crush Satan.

And what is Christ’s reply? “I saw Satan fall like lightning from heaven.” That is, “I am not unaware of this: for inasmuch as you set out upon this journey, so to speak, by My will, you have vanquished Satan. ‘I saw him fall like lightning from heaven.’” And this means that he was cast down from on high to earth: from overweening pride to humiliation: from glory to contempt: from great power to utter weakness. And the saying is true: for before the coming of the Savior, he possessed the world. All was subject to him, and there was no man able to escape the meshes of his overwhelming might. He was worshiped by every one. Everywhere he had temples and altars for sacrifice, and an innumerable multitude of worshipers. But because the Only-begotten Word of God has come down from heaven, he has fallen like lightning: for he who of old was bold and arrogant, and who contended with the glory of Deity; he who had as his worshipers all that were in error, is put under the feet of those that worshiped him.

Cyril of Alexandria, Commentary on the Gospel of St. Luke 64

Friday, September 20, 2019

Patristic Wisdom: Looking to the Fifteenth Sunday after Pentecost

Eugene Burnand, “Parable of the Dishonest Steward”
He also said to His disciples: “There was a certain rich man who had a steward, and an accusation was brought to him that this man was wasting his goods. So he called him and said to him, ‘What is this I hear about you? Give an account of your stewardship, for you can no longer be steward.’ Then the steward said within himself, ‘What shall I do? For my master is taking the stewardship away from me. I cannot dig; I am ashamed to beg. I have resolved what to do, that when I am put out of the stewardship, they may receive me into their houses.’

So he called every one of his master’s debtors to him, and said to the first, ‘How much do you owe my master?’ And he said, ‘A hundred measures of oil.’ So he said to him, ‘Take your bill, and sit down quickly and write fifty.’ Then he said to another, ‘And how much do you owe?’ So he said, ‘A hundred measures of wheat.’ And he said to him, ‘Take your bill, and write eighty.’ So the master commended the unjust steward because he had dealt shrewdly. For the sons of this world are more shrewd in their generation than the sons of light. And I say to you, make friends for yourselves by unrighteous mammon, that when you fail, they may receive you into an everlasting home. He who is faithful in what is least is faithful also in much; and he who is unjust in what is least is unjust also in much. Therefore if you have not been faithful in the unrighteous mammon, who will commit to your trust the true riches? And if you have not been faithful in what is another man’s, who will give you what is your own? “No servant can serve two masters; for either he will hate the one and love the other, or else he will be loyal to the one and despise the other. You cannot serve God and mammon.” (Luke 16:1–13)

Anyone may readily learn the meaning and view of the Savior’s words from what follows. For He said, “If you have not been faithful in what is another’s, who will give you what is your own?” And again, we say what is another’s is the wealth we possess. For we were not born with riches, but, on the contrary, naked; and we can truly affirm in the words of Scripture, “that we neither brought anything into the world, nor can we carry anything out.” For the patient Job also has said something of this kind: “Naked I came from my mother’s womb; naked shall I return.” It is therefore no man’s own by right of nature that he is rich and lives in abundant wealth, but it is a thing added on from the outside, and is a chance matter. And if it cease and perish, it in no respect whatsoever harms the definitions of human nature. For it is not by virtue of our being rich that we are reasonable beings, and skillful in every good work, but it is the property of our nature to be capable of these things. That therefore, as I said, is another’s which is not contained in the definitions of our nature, but, on the contrary, is manifestly added to us from the outside. But it is our own, and the property of human nature to be fitted for every good work, for as the blessed Paul writes, “We have been created for good works, which God has prepared beforehand, that we should walk in them.”

When therefore any are unfaithful in what is another’s, in those things namely, which are added to them from the outside, how shall they receive that which is their own? How shall they be made partakers of the good things which God gives, which adorn the soul of man, and imprint upon it a divine beauty, spiritually formed in it by righteousness and holiness, and those upright deeds which are done in the fear of God.

Let those of us then who possess earthly wealth open our hearts to those who are in need. Let us show ourselves faithful and obedient to the laws of God and followers of our Lord’s will in those things which are from the outside, and not our own, that we may receive that which is our own, even that holy and admirable beauty which God forms in the souls of men, fashioning them like unto Himself, according to what we originally were.

Cyril of Alexandria, Homilies on the Gospel of St. Luke 109

Tuesday, September 17, 2019

Repentance and Reconciliation

Yesterday, I gave an example from 2 Maccabees of Jason the high priest introducing foreign practices into Jewish life with disastrous results. After the debacle, Jason was ousted as high priest in favor of Melenaus. While Jason made a successful attack on Jerusalem to regain the position, he overstepped, killing innocent people, so that the Greeks turned against him, forcing him to flee and die in exile. Antiochus, for his part, “dared to enter the most holy temple in all the earth.… With defiled hands he took the holy vessels, and with profane hands he pulled down the things dedicated by other kings to increase the glory and honor of the place” (2 Macc 5:15–16). With booty in tow, he left Jerusalem and sent Apollonius, commander of the Mysians, with an army of 22,000 men, with orders to slaughter all the grown men and to sell the women and young boys as slaves, resulting in the killing of a great number of people (2 Macc 5:24–26).

Amidst the apostatizing priests and later carnage and mayhem from invading forces, we have a sublime message concerning a marvelous truth, wisely acknowledging the ties and priorities between God’s people and His dwelling place.
But the Lord did not choose the nation because of the place, but the place because of the nation. Therefore the place also itself shared in the misfortunes that befell the nation, and later had a share in its benefits; and what was forsaken in the wrath of the Almighty was restored again in all its glory by the reconciliation of the great Lord. (2 Macc 5:19–20)
Evidently, at this time Jerusalem and the temple were held as the linchpin or identity of Judaism—that God had chosen Israel because He placed His name in Jerusalem. The writer reminds his readers that they had things backwards: God had first chosen the nation (Deut 7:6), then afterward had chosen a place to put His name as a dwelling place whereat He might be called (Deut 12:5). While the desecration and looting of the temple was a great tragedy, the greater tragedy was the malaise of the nation concerning the holy things coupled with the loss of human life. Later teaching from Jesus describes the continued downward trajectory of the leaders’ spiritual condition, becoming stagnant and twisted to the extent that the gold of the temple was held in higher esteem than the temple itself (Matt 23:16–17); however, at this time, there seemed to be an understanding that the Lord would and did restore the former glory of the city, temple, and nation upon becoming reconciled with His people.

While we continue on this earth, our sins and trespasses separates us from Him. Isaiah describes the condition this way: But your sins stand between you and your God, and He turned His face from you because of your sins, so as to have no mercy (Isa 59:2). Yet in spite of this great wall, the promise of restoration continues as a theme throughout Scripture. Beginning with Adam’s fall, the Lord had promised action (Gen 3:15); and by virtue of the One promised, a means of atonement and reconciliation was available. Presented with the facts, sinners have opportunity to repent (Isa 59:12–14). We see this continuing even in the churches of Revelation mentioned in yesterday’s post as the Lord warns:
  • Remember therefore from where you have fallen; repent and do the first works, or else… (Rev 2:2)
  • Repent, or else… (Rev 2:16)
  • I will cast her into a sickbed,… unless they repent of their deeds. (Rev 2:22)
  • Remember therefore how you have received and heard; hold fast and repent. (Rev 3:3)
  • As many as I love, I rebuke and chasten. Therefore be zealous and repent. (Rev 3:19)
This seems like a who lot of Law being dropped on the people them, and our sinful flesh fights against it; but we need to understand that He has already accomplished the victory for us. By grace through faith, we are reconciled to God (Rom 5:10–11); and when His people repent, He fights for them:
He put on righteousness as a breastplate and placed the helmet of salvation on His head. He clothed Himself with the garment and covering of vengeance, as a recompense of recompenses, even a rebuke to His adversaries. Those from the west shall fear the name of the Lord, and those from the east, His glorious name; for the wrath of the Lord shall come like a violent river; it shall come with anger. (Isa 59:17–19)
For Judas Maccabeus and the faithful of Israel, their day eventually came as hostilities ceased with the Greeks through a truce. To be sure, it was a temporary peace, but the Lord was true to His promise. We know what would happen later when the God Himself came, offering the kingdom of heaven: they rejected Him and His gift outright. But God was still faithful to His word: to those who received Him, to them He gave the right to become children of God, even to those who believed on His name. Those are they who received ultimate reconciliation and peace.

Monday, September 16, 2019

Enhancing the Worship Experience

History is replete with examples of clerical leaders attempting to “enhance the worship experience” by applying elements of the surrounding culture. The usual impetus for such a change stems from some combination of maintaining a base by appeasing dissatisfied attendees and building up numbers by attracting indifferent onlookers. Practices and patterns from leading or trending entities are often borrowed under the assumption that pragmatic or appealing elements of the populace will sufficiently engage, energize, and build the local church. Is this strategy wise? What are the effects of such changes?

The first example is an account from Israel’s history during the reign of Antiochus I Epiphanes (175–164 ʙᴄ). The account begins in 2 Maccabees 4:10–12.
When the king assented and Jason seized the high priesthood, he at once changed his countrymen over to the Greek way of life. He set aside the royal benefits to the Jews brought about through John, the father of Eupolemus, the ambassador who established friendship and alliance with the Romans. He also renounced and destroyed conformity to the laws, and created a new civic life contrary to the customs. For he eagerly founded a gymnasium under the citadel itself, and persuaded the most noble of the young men to wear the Greek cap.
Jason, brother of Onias the high priest, usurped the position and instituted sweeping changes to Hellenize the Jews in an effort to make the nation more amenable to their Greek overlords. Continuing the account in verse 13, what was the result?
So there was the fullest expression of Hellenization and the adoption of foreign customs because of the surpassing wickedness of Jason, who was ungodly and not a true high priest. Therefore the priests were no longer eager to serve at the altar, but they despised the temple and neglected the sacrifices. Instead, they hastened to take part in the unlawful proceedings in the wrestling-school after the invitation to the discus. They counted the honors of their fathers as nothing, but regarded Greek honors as the best. For this reason, difficult circumstances overtook them, and those whose way of life they admired and wished altogether to assimilate became their enemies and punished them.
Jason was wildly successful in his attempt to turn the culture, but instead of making life better for the Jews, the enterprise imploded as the priests abandoned godly worship for worldly adulation; and the Greek, seeing how they were being emulated, disdained the effort even becoming hostile. So much for good intentions.

Would Christians fare any better? We might believe so because of the presence of the Holy Spirit and all that, but 250 years after the above, St. Paul starts a church whose members decided that they could do what they please (just like the culture) necessitating a letter with scathing remarks like:
  • For it has been declared to me concerning you, my brethren, by those of Chloe’s household, that there are contentions among you.
  • you are still carnal. For where there are envy, strife, and divisions among you, are you not carnal and behaving like mere men?
  • It is actually reported that there is sexual immorality among you, and such sexual immorality as is not even named among the Gentiles—that a man has his father’s wife!
  • Dare any of you, having a matter against another, go to law before the unrighteous, and not before the saints?… I say this to your shame. Is it so, that there is not a wise man among you, not even one, who will be able to judge between his brethren? But brother goes to law against brother, and that before unbelievers!
  • For in eating, each one takes his own supper ahead of others; and one is hungry and another is drunk.
Maybe we can give the church in Corinth a pass, since they had not yet matured and received the benefit of all the apostolic writings, but fast forward 30+ years:
  • But I have a few things against you, because you have there those who hold the doctrine of Balaam, who taught Balak to put a stumbling block before the children of Israel, to eat things sacrificed to idols, and to commit sexual immorality. Thus you also have those who hold the doctrine of the Nicolaitans, which thing I hate.
  • [Y]ou allow that woman Jezebel, who calls herself a prophetess, to teach and seduce My servants to commit sexual immorality and eat things sacrificed to idols.
  • 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—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.
Jesus Himself identifies what these churches from Revelation 2–3 have allowed from the culture, condemns it all, and calls for repentance. Sadly, we believers are just as prone to tweak things in a worldly way.

When a church tries to assimilate processes, programs, or principles from the world, nothing good happens. We should be asking, “What has God told us that He wants?” He gave Moses a pattern for His habitation and its furnishings (Exod 25:9, 40). He gave clear instructions of what was acceptable worship in His holy place (Lev 1–7). He provided acceptable prayers and songs to be used or emulated when coming before Him. Perhaps these should be learned and revered before seeking fresh approaches.

What we are and have is not of this world. Attempts to add the world to the mix makes it useless for everyone. Why do we insist on chasing after the new and shiny? Because it’s new and shiny—and because we think we know better than God how things should work in our community. The fact is that we are more likely to tear down with our own hands what God has wrought while turning away the world because we are not offering anything but what the world already has. In other words, to borrow from a Hank Hill meme, “You’re not making Christianity any better. You’re just making culture worse.”

Friday, September 13, 2019

Patristic Wisdom: Looking to the Fourteenth Sunday after Pentecost

Then all the tax collectors and the sinners drew near to Him to hear Him. And the Pharisees and scribes complained, saying, “This Man receives sinners and eats with them.” So He spoke this parable to them, saying: “What man of you, having a hundred sheep, if he loses one of them, does not leave the ninety-nine in the wilderness, and go after the one which is lost until he finds it? And when he has found it, he lays it on his shoulders, rejoicing. And when he comes home, he calls together his friends and neighbors, saying to them, ‘Rejoice with me, for I have found my sheep which was lost!’ I say to you that likewise there will be more joy in heaven over one sinner who repents than over ninety-nine just persons who need no repentance. “Or what woman, having ten silver coins, if she loses one coin, does not light a lamp, sweep the house, and search carefully until she finds it? And when she has found it, she calls her friends and neighbors together, saying, ‘Rejoice with me, for I have found the piece which I lost!’ Likewise, I say to you, there is joy in the presence of the angels of God over one sinner who repents.” (Luke 15:1–10)

Let us rejoice, therefore, that this sheep, which was lost in Adam, is raised up in Christ. The shoulders of Christ are the arms of the Cross: it is there that I deposited my sins, it is on the noble neck of this gallows that I rested. This ewe is unique in gender, not specifically; for “all of us are one body,” but many members, and that is why it is written, “You are the body of Christ, and members of his members." For “the Son of man came to save what had perished,” that is to say, all, since “as all die in Adam, so in Christ all receive the life.” He is therefore a rich shepherd, since all of us are one hundredth of His share.

He possesses the innumerable herds of angels, the archangels, the dominions, the powers, the thrones, and others, which He has left on the heights. And since they are reasonable, it is not without motive that they rejoice at the redemption of men. Moreover, it is still a stimulant to be good, to know that your conversion is pleasant to the troops of angels, each of whom must seek patronage or fear disgrace. Be you also joy for the angels; they are looking forward to your return.

Ambrose, Exposition of the Gospel of Luke 7.209

Friday, September 6, 2019

Patristic Wisdom: Looking to the Thirteenth Sunday after Pentecost

Now great multitudes went with Him. And He turned and said to them, “If anyone comes to Me and does not hate his father and mother, wife and children, brothers and sisters, yes, and his own life also, he cannot be My disciple. And whoever does not bear his cross and come after Me cannot be My disciple. For which of you, intending to build a tower, does not sit down first and count the cost, whether he has enough to finish it—lest, after he has laid the foundation, and is not able to finish, all who see it begin to mock him, saying, ‘This man began to build and was not able to finish’? Or what king, going to make war against another king, does not sit down first and consider whether he is able with ten thousand to meet him who comes against him with twenty thousand? Or else, while the other is still a great way off, he sends a delegation and asks conditions of peace. So likewise, whoever of you does not forsake all that he has cannot be My disciple. Salt is good; but if the salt has lost its flavor, how shall it be seasoned? It is neither fit for the land nor for the dunghill, but men throw it out. He who has ears to hear, let him hear!” (Luke 14:25–35)

The Father did not send the only-begotten Son, the living God, to judge the world but to save the world. True to Himself and faithful to the will of the good God His Father, He points to a doctrine whereby we may be made worthy of becoming His disciples with his severe decree. He says, “If any man comes to Me and does not hate his father and mother, and his wife and children and brothers and sisters, yes, and his own life also, he cannot be My disciple.” This hatred teaches the virtue of piety by withdrawing us from distractions and does not lead us to devise hurtful schemes against one another. “Whoever,” says the Lord, “does not carry his cross and come after Me, cannot be My disciple.” Receiving the baptism of water, we make this same agreement when we promise to be crucified and to die and to be buried with Him.

Basil the Great, Concerning Baptism 1.1

We are therefore given most clearly to understand, that when God calls us unto Him, to make us partakers of His bounty, we must disregard the lusts that are of the flesh, and minister to the flesh, and set no value whatsoever upon the things of this world, but exerting all our force must advance unto those things which will never have to be abandoned, and which fill us with all blessedness, as God bestows with bounteous hand upon us His gifts, and like one welcoming us to a costly banquet, admits us to the right of rejoicing with the rest of the saints in the hope of future blessings. For the things of earth, are but of little value and last only for a time, and belong to the flesh solely, which is the victim of corruption. But those things which are divine and spiritual constantly and without ceasing accompany those who have once been counted worthy of receiving them, and reach onward to unending worlds.... To work in us therefore a mind incapable of being broken, and make us careless of every worldly matter for our love of Him, He commands us to hate even our relatives according to the flesh, and our own self also, if, as I have just said, the season call us thereto.

Cyril of Alexandria, Homilies on the Gospel of St. Luke 105