Ancient Answers

Guidance for Today from Scripture and Early Christianity

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Three Essentials


“I believe; help my unbelief!” – those memorable words of the father in today’s Gospel reading. Every single one of us here today is a believer and an unbeliever at the same time. We believe, we are drawn to this amazing person Jesus Christ, we have a vague idea of God, some sense of how we are to live in the world – but we can’t put it together and keep it together. So when tragedy strikes, when we find ourselves in a mess either of our own making or someone else’s, we fall apart.

I found a tremendous quote the other day:

Though I wouldn’t have admitted it, even to myself, I didn’t want God aboard. He was too heavy. I wanted Him approving from a considerable distance. I didn’t want to be thinking of Him. I wanted to be free—like Gypsy. I wanted life itself, the color and fire and loveliness of life. And Christ now and then, like a loved poem I could read when I wanted to. I didn’t want us to be swallowed up in God. I wanted holidays from the school of Christ. ~ Sheldon Vanauken

That’s where much of our unbelief comes from – our keeping God at a distance, now and then coming to him when it’s convenient, when we have nothing else to do, or when hard times hit. We, like Sheldon Vanauken, want holidays (that’s British talk for what Americans call vacation) from the school of Christ – for many of us, LONG holidays! But I like the way Vanauken puts it – “the school of Christ.” It is indeed a school. Jesus Christ teaches us how to live – how to live fully, how to live in touch with our inner selves and with the people and the natural world around us.

In the walk to Emmaus, Jesus taught the two disciples in the way that only he could. He opened their minds while they walked and he opened their eyes and hearts when he broke bread with them. And that’s how he teaches us too.

He teaches us while we are walking. There’s not much Jesus can do if we refuse to budge, if we refuse to walk with him. Walking is the best way to experience and enjoy nature, the world around us. Can you drive through the Old Port for years and think you know it. Then one day you decide to park the car at a distance and walk. And you see the Old Port like you never saw it before; you discover it for the first time. Walking is also the way to grow with Christ.

The disciples talked while they walked, before and after Jesus joined them. Talk – we’re forgetting how to talk. This past week we lost one of the great human beings of our time – or of any time, a man who inspired many and who taught us to look with awe at the immensity of the universe. Stephen Hawking did not believe in God, he was an atheist. Can I blame him, the way God has been represented by Christians?

Stephen Hawking was confined to a wheelchair and lost most of his motor abilities, including his ability to speak. He had to communicate through computerised voice synthesis. In an age such as ours where fewer and fewer people bother to communicate with coherent thought and sentences, Hawking was a master communicator, able to express the deepest mysteries of the universe in ways that even children could understand. At a time when talk has become cheap or is being replaced by social media and trivial texts and tweets and when people don’t talk but shout at each other from inside their political and religious bubbles, Hawking’s advice is more needed than ever:

“For millions of years, mankind lived just like the animals. Then something happened which unleashed the power of our imagination. We learned to talk and we learned to listen. Speech has allowed the communication of ideas, enabling human beings to work together to build the impossible. Mankind’s greatest achievements have come about by talking, and its greatest failures by not talking. It doesn’t have to be like this. Our greatest hopes could become reality in the future. With the technology at our disposal, the possibilities are unbounded. All we need to do is make sure we keep talking.”

The greatest genius since Einstein urged us to talk, to keep talking, not to forget how to talk, and to communicate without resorting to our prejudices and narrow-mindedness. We talk in order to learn and to grow in our faith. We talk in order to work through our confusion, just like the disciples did on the road with Jesus. And every time we are honestly working through difficulties of thought and faith, Jesus will be there. But if you think you have it all worked out, he has other people to attend to.

Finally, we must not stop breaking bread with each other. These are the three main messages from this story of the walk to Emmaus, the three essentials to grow in the faith: walking, talking and breaking bread. The fellowship we experience here at Liturgy when we share communion with each other should inspire us to sit down more often – not just with family, but with friends and strangers. Outreach and Fellowship are at the heart of the Christian message – and the Christian lifestyle. At Easter midnight we leave the Liturgy – well, most leave before Liturgy – and carry the paschal light to our homes. Our candles illumine the dark of night as we drive or walk home. But far more important, our lives should illumine the darkness that’s growing in the world; not add to the spiritual, environmental and political darkness that threaten our lives and the lives of our children. We are to be lights in the world, not contribute to the darkness.

Let’s walk and talk our way to a better world, a more Jesus-centered world. And let’s encourage our children and teenagers to spend less time texting and more time talking, face to face. It’s good practice for when we see God face to face, and we sit down and break bread with Jesus in the Kingdom!

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The φρόνημα of the Cross


One of seventeen crosses representing the seventeen who were shot and killed by a gunman at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School, Parkland, Fla., are arranged in the Pine Trails Park during a candlelight vigil, Thursday, Feb. 15, 2018. (Greg Lovett / The Palm Beach Post)

The cross is the stumbling block for most people who turn away from Christianity or refuse to accept its vision of God. How could God be so cruel as to demand such a thing? How could God allow his son to die such a horrible death? Of course to even ask a question such as, How could God allow his son to die such a horrible death, does put our own questions in perspective: How could God allow the shooting at the Parkland high school, or at Sandy Hook? How can God allow thousands of refugees to drown every year in the Mediterranean Sea as they try to flee war and starvation?

Well, before we get to the God question, let’s answer these questions with one single word: Evil. Evil men shot to death those students at Parkland and Sandy Hook. Evil governments and human traffickers are responsible for those refugees drowning in the Mediterranean. And of course it was evil men who put Jesus to death on the cross.

But where is God in all this? To invoke free will, as we Orthodox usually do, is a cop-out. We Orthodox like to get to resurrection, to Easter, so we try to get through talk of cross as quickly as possible. We even boast that we are the resurrection church – while the western churches talk too much about the cross and the blood of Jesus. The blood of the western churches does get to be rather much; but too much resurrection and theosis talk in the Orthodox Church also falls short of any answers we can offer to the God question.

Attendees pass a wooden cross as they arrive at a candlelight vigil for the victims of the shooting at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School, Thursday, Feb. 15, 2018, in Parkland, Florida. (AP Photo/Wilfredo Lee)

We can’t rush to the resurrection. We have to go through the cross first. Jesus tells us today that if we want to follow him we must pick up our cross and follow him. What is this cross? Is it some catastrophe that falls to us in our home? Is it a deadly illness we have to go through? Some struggle that overwhelms us? “This is my cross… This is your cross…” we casually speak about our problems and each other. Maybe something might be “my cross” or “your cross,” but not necessarily the cross Jesus has in mind.


Paul said it very clearly in a great passage in his letter to the Philippians:

Τοῦτο φρονεῖτε ἐν ὑμῖν ὃ καὶ ἐν Χριστῷ Ἰησοῦ (Philippians 2:5)

φρονέω – an amazing, multifaceted verb in the ancient Greek, together with several derivatives, like φρόνησις, φρόνημα, φρόνιμος, etc. – all ultimately deriving from φρήν, usually in the plural φρένες “diaphragm.” Originally this was regarded as the seat of intellectual and spiritual activity. The diaphragm determined the nature and strength of the breath and hence also the human spirit and its emotions. In Homer φρένες means “inner part,” “mind,” “consciousness,” “understanding” etc. and like the other terms for inner organs it is the agent of spiritual and intellectual experiences. (Theological Dictionary of the New Testament, Volume 9, page 220)

But in ancient Greek these words all had to do with attitude, mindset, attitude to life

Romans 8:6 – “For to set the mind on the flesh is death, but to set the mind on the Spirit is life and peace.” The word translated as “to set the mind on…” is φρόνημα, phronema. For Paul and for the ancient Greeks, φρόνημα was not simply about thinking – just thinking never killed anyone, or almost never. To set the mind on something, meant for Paul and the ancient Greeks the action that goes with the mind’s thinking – more broadly, the life that goes with the mind’s thinking. And later in this chapter 8 of Romans, Paul says something even bolder. Verse 27: And he who searches hearts knows what is the mind of the Spirit, because the Spirit intercedes for the saints according to the will of God. τὸ φρόνημα τοῦ πνεύματος is the key phrase.

That simple word, φρόνημα, phronema, is used by Paul in his letters in such a way as to unite our approach to thought and life with God’s own Spirit. So when Paul says in Philippians, Τοῦτο φρονεῖτε ἐν ὑμῖν ὃ καὶ ἐν Χριστῷ Ἰησοῦ, he is basically saying be united with the Spirit of God so that you can live as Christ lived. “Have the same mind” (or, attitude) is the usual translation, and it falls very short.

The cross is not some particular problem or sickness we have to bear; or something God sends to test us – another very popular idea – and in my opinion thoroughly pagan. The cross is not a problem or an instrument of death. The cross is a way of life. That’s what Paul is saying when he wrote to the Philippians to have the same mind, the same mindset, the same approach to life, that was also in Christ Jesus.

This is what the two disciples walking to Emmaus could not wrap their heads around. They didn’t have the φρόνημα of the Holy Spirit in them until Jesus opened their minds on the road and then their hearts when he broke bread with them at the dinner table. And there, their minds and their hearts were united and they understood; they saw Jesus. They understood what was at the very heart of the universe. Stephen Hawking and his fellow physicists will hopefully some day discover a theory of everything. But for us and for all eternity, from the very beginning of time, the Cross is at the heart of the universe. It reveals God without the need for religion.

Jesus did not take the shortcut – Hey, guys, it’s me, I’m risen, forget about the cross and everything else that happened in Jerusalem these past few days. No, he had to take them through the whole history of God’s ways; he had to educate them in the φρόνημα of the Spirit before they could understand the resurrection, before they could see him as the resurrected one.

So, to return to the God question, we cannot even begin to ask the question unless we have the φρόνημα of the Spirit. But we can answer some questions. Where was God at Parkland or Sandy Hook or the Mediterranean crossings? How could he allow such horrible deaths and killings? Where was God at Auschwitz? He died in the gas chambers, some Jewish writers have asserted. Where is Jesus when those refugees are drowning? He is drowning with them. Where was he when those students were gunned down? He was killed with them. That is the φρόνημα of the Spirit – to see life through the lens of the cross; which is the lens of reality, rather than some make-believe fantasy. We are to see life – all life – as completely wrapped up ἐν Χριστῷ, “in Christ”. He tells us in today’s Gospel reading to pick up our cross and follow him; but in fact it is he who is still bearing the cross.

The cross IS the core truth of Christianity. Other religions have resurrection. The Moslems believe in a resurrection and a judgment. But they don’t have the cross. And I don’t mean as an ornament, a symbol, a slogan.

The cross is a way of life – the way of life that unites us with Christ. How that life unfolds will be unique for every one of us. Carry your cross and follow Christ – means accept the calling, accept the φρόνημα of the Spirit.


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In the middle of life


Saint Gregory Palamas is one of the most revered theologians of the church. He lived about 700 years ago in northern Greece. He explored some profound theological ideas which created quite a bit of controversy – and still do. His main concern was to show how God interacts with us, how God enters our lives, how God communicates with us and makes himself known by us. That was, of course, the great challenge for the two disciples walking to Emmaus: how were they to know that it was Christ who joined them on the road? The initiative came from Jesus himself. And the initiative always comes from God, according to Gregory Palamas.

We live in an age where theological thought is almost non-existent in church circles. Serious theology has been replaced by simple-minded slogans and the marketing of the faith. Even sermons are expected to be short and practical.

If Jesus really was the Son of God and if his death had consequences for all human beings, then it is not something that should be turned into a slogan or a marketing campaign or a 10-minute feel good sermon. The two disciples walking to Emmaus were confused; they couldn’t understand how their friend and teacher could die on the cross. They thought he was the Messiah; he had come to deliver the people from Roman oppression. How could he have died, humiliated on the cross?

Jesus could have taken the easy approach – the marketing approach – and simply revealed himself on the road, to relieve them of their sadness. “Hey guys, it’s me. I rose from the dead. All’s well.” No, he said nothing of the sort. While walking, he opened to them the scriptures. He got into serious exegesis, serious theology. Then he sat to eat with them and broke the bread, blessed it and gave it to them. And their eyes were opened. And he disappeared the minute they recognised him! No speech about being risen. He gave them the theology of words; and then he gave them the theology of bread and vision. And that was it. He wanted them to go back to Jerusalem; and there he would again reveal himself to all the gathered disciples. He wanted his community to be together before he would reveal himself in the fulness of his resurrection.

(Click on image to Expand)

But notice where the heavy theology took place – on the road, while they walked. Jesus walked everywhere. And while he walked he always taught his disciples. And he is still walking. I’m sure you’ve seen some version of that wonderful modern Christian parable called Footprints…

Walking is movement. And the Christian life must be a life of movement and growth – it must be! Think about the ancient Greeks. There was even a school of philosophy called the peripatetic school. It was Aristotle’s school, and it got its name because Aristotle and his students walked while he lectured. The people of Athens called Aristotle’s school the Peripatos! And before Aristotle, Socrates loved to walk while engaging in his many conversations that were preserved in the Dialogues of Plato. Many of the dialogues of Plato have vivid descriptions of the surroundings where Socrates and his conversation partners walked or met.

Down through the ages, walking has been the muse that inspired many geniuses. Beethoven loved to walk in the nature that surrounded the city of Vienna. And it was in these walks that he was inspired to write his 6th Symphony, the Pastorale, a symphony filled with the sounds of nature. Even great scientists like Einstein were often photographed walking.

Danish postage stamp celebrating the bicentennial of Kierkegaard’s birth

One of my favourite philosophers is Søren Kierkegaard. He lived in Denmark in the first half of the 19th century. He was notorious for walking the streets of Copenhagen and talking to strangers wherever he went. Kierkegaard was very critical about life in Denmark, so people were puzzled that he loved to walk and talk with complete strangers. They imagined that he would rather stay home by himself. But he walked and talked hours on end. Many caricatures drawn by his contemporaries show him walking.

He said he liked to walk because it was healthy:

[Every] day I walk myself into a state of well-being and walk away from every illness; I have walked myself into my best thoughts, and I know of no thought so burdensome that one can not walk away from it. . . . [By] sitting still, and the more one sits still, the closer one comes to feeling ill. Health and salvation can only be found in motion. . . . If one just keeps on walking, everything will be all right.

On many of his walks, he encountered people who ridiculed and criticised him for what he wrote. But this did not stop him from walking, or writing. He wrote against “sissy, effeminate” Christianity. Christians should “insist on getting out into the streets, among men, where there is danger and opposition.” The Christian goal, after all, is to become “a thorn in the eye of the world”. Walking the streets of Copenhagen was important to Kierkegaard because it helped him clarify the Christian faith. He went so far as to say that preaching should not be done inside churches, but out on the street, right in the middle of life.

And that last phrase, dear friends, is the key – in the middle of life. In the middle of life where Dante also met Vergil and the two began their walk through Inferno, Purgatorio and Paradiso – the three books that make up Dante’s masterpiece, The Divine Comedy.

We are always in the middle of life; in the middle of our walk to Emmaus, to the resurrection, to the union with God that Gregory Palamas labored to explain. We are always in the middle; and that’s where Jesus comes and walks with us. No matter how old or how young you are, the middle is the place of growth. Don’t settle for less.

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The Community Approach


How do we recognise Jesus? Do we expect him to look like we see him in our icons?

Icons are a very important part of our Orthodox tradition – so important that this First Sunday of Lent commemorates the restoration of icons in the year 843, after a long period of iconoclasm. But icons can also limit our ability and freedom to recognise Jesus! “When did we see you, Lord?” we might end up crying out, as they do in the parable of the sheep and goats (Matthew 25:31-46)

The answer Jesus himself offers in that parable is that we see him in the least of his brothers and sisters. But he is not only a brother to the least; he is also our brother. We need him as much as any of the least!

Let’s pick up the story of the Emmaus walk on that first Easter afternoon, from where we left off last week. The two disciples are walking to Emmaus and Jesus joins them on the road, but they don’t recognise him. They are sad and confused about what has happened to Jesus those last few days…

And he said to them, “O foolish men, and slow of heart to believe all that the prophets have spoken! Was it not necessary that the Christ should suffer these things and enter into his glory?” And beginning with Moses and all the prophets, he interpreted to them in all the scriptures the things concerning himself.

So they drew near to the village to which they were going. He appeared to be going further, but they constrained him, saying, “Stay with us, for it is toward evening and the day is now far spent.” So he went in to stay with them. When he was at table with them, he took the bread and blessed, and broke it, and gave it to them. And their eyes were opened and they recognised him; and he vanished out of their sight. They said to each other, “Did not our hearts burn within us while he talked to us on the road, while he opened to us the scriptures?” And they rose that same hour and returned to Jerusalem; and they found the eleven gathered together and those who were with them, who said, “The Lord has risen indeed, and has appeared to Simon!” Then they told what had happened on the road, and how he was known to them in the breaking of the bread.

Walking with the two disciples, still unrecognised by them, Jesus responds to their sadness and confusion by going back to the scriptures – meaning, of course, the Hebrew Scriptures, what we call the Old Testament. The two disciples are intrigued by how this stranger understood the scriptures, so they ask him to spend the night at the inn where they are staying for the night. They sit down for dinner. And that’s where it happens. “He took the bread and blessed, and broke it, and gave it to them” – and their eyes were opened. They immediately recognised him – but just as immediately he vanished from their sight.

“Did not our hearts burn within us while he talked to us on the road, while he opened to us the scriptures?” Yes their hearts burned on the road, he touched them deeply as he opened their eyes to the meaning of the scriptures. But they only recognised him at the table, when he blessed and broke the bread and gave it to them. They immediately remembered how he did the same when he fed thousands, every time he sat down to eat with his disciples, and how he took the bread, blessed, broke it and gave it to them at the last supper.

It was at dinner that they recognised him. It’s always a dinner at the heart of Jesus’ teaching – a communal meal. We recognise Jesus when we are a community. When two or three are gathered in my name, there I am with you,” he promised. The two disciples going to Emmaus were two, and he came to them. We are two, three, fifty-three… We are a community, a communion – koinonia. Not just a community as an incorporated entity,. but a living organic communion of people – diverse in so many ways, but united by the presence and bread of Christ.

This past week I considered many reactions to the recent school shooting in Florida. One came in a New York Times column yesterday. The writer made an interesting connection between gun massacres and the opioid crisis. He concludes that the root cause of both crises is isolation. Specifically with respect to guns, over many years of research, he found the same description of assailants: a lost, isolated, unbalanced (usually white) young man with legal access to firearms. Isolated, rootless. And this NYT writer points to what is lacking: Community! “All this, in other words, is a community approach to a plague feeding on our isolation. Mass murder calls for the same.”

“A community approach”! When the “failing” New York Times starts talking about “community”, you know some important awareness is growing in our society of individualism. Drugs, mass shootings – “symptoms of our culture of isolation, in which we’ve lost the habit of collaborating with our neighbours.”

Dear friends, fellow believers in Christ Jesus. For many years my friend Leon Nicholas, a child of our churchcommunity and one of my altar boys years ago, has been telling me exactly the same thing: Rootless, isolated teenagers and young men are the ones most likely to go on a shooting rampage and the easy availability of deadly weapons makes it all too easy for them. Imagine, teenagers can’t drink legally but they can buy weapons of mass destruction. Of course they still drink – illegally – but that’s not an excuse for not changing some of the laws applying to gun purchases.

No, Leon has been right all these years that we have discussed social problems, and we talked again yesterday over coffee. Community is the key. An actual eucharistic community, that meets regularly, shares the same meal that Jesus shared with those disciples, and works together to manifest the grace and peace that only Christ can give. The peace that is beyond human understanding (Philippians 4:7).

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The Mystery of the Unrecognised Christ


Everything begins with forgiveness. Authentic life begins the minute we are able to forgive and receive forgiveness. Until then, all is theory and talk. The key moment on the Cross was when Jesus looked out at the soldiers and crowd and spoke the words, “Father, forgive them, for they know not what they are doing.” Our salvation was sealed at that moment. Everything that comes after that, including 2,000 years of church history, is just footnote to those words Jesus spoke on the Cross.

But most of us don’t know that we are forgiven, and we go through life lurching from day to day, bouncing back and forth from one professional help to another, from one religious expert to another.

So I like to describe Lent this year as our voyage of discovery, the discovery that we are forgiven. But also the discovery of what we do with our forgiveness. How does it affect our lives, our attitudes and actions? This is what I want to explore in this series of Lenten sermons that I’m calling Emmaus Walk. Many years ago I was doing a 15 or 20-minute teaching every Sunday morning between the end of Matins and the beginning of Liturgy. I called it Emmaus Walk, a preparation for encountering the risen Christ at the Liturgy.

The series of sermons I’m now calling Emmaus Walk will take us to Easter. But along the way I want to discover together with you the Christ who is walking with us every step of the way.

Do you remember the Emmaus story in the Gospel of Luke? Here is the first half of the story as Luke tells it (chapter 24, beginning at verse 13):

That very day two of them were going to a village named Emma′us, about seven miles from Jerusalem, and talking with each other about all these things that had happened. While they were talking and discussing together, Jesus himself drew near and went with them. But their eyes were kept from recognising him. And he said to them, “What is this conversation which you are holding with each other as you walk?” And they stood still, looking sad. Then one of them, named Cle′opas, answered him, “Are you the only visitor to Jerusalem who does not know the things that have happened there in these days?” And he said to them, “What things?” And they said to him, “Concerning Jesus of Nazareth, who was a prophet mighty in deed and word before God and all the people, and how our chief priests and rulers delivered him up to be condemned to death, and crucified him. But we had hoped that he was the one to redeem Israel. Yes, and besides all this, it is now the third day since this happened. Moreover, some women of our company amazed us. They were at the tomb early in the morning and did not find his body; and they came back saying that they had even seen a vision of angels, who said that he was alive. Some of those who were with us went to the tomb, and found it just as the women had said; but him they did not see.”

The scene describes where most of us are most of the time. We have heard about Jesus Christ. We have listened to many Gospel readings in the Liturgy. We hear some of our friends and relatives talking with great conviction about Jesus, how their faith in him has transformed their lives. We go to church regularly, we follow some traditions handed down by our mothers or grandmothers. But we don’t quite know how to put it all together. We don’t know quite what to make of this Jesus Christ and all the talk about him. We don’t know why we follow certain traditions or how to pass them on to our children or grandchildren who have a different approach to life and who don’t worry about the same things we worry about. We begin to have doubts ourselves. Maybe it is all a myth after all. 

That’s where Cleopas and his unnamed companion were on that Sunday afternoon long ago. (And by the way, why does the second, unnamed disciple have to be another man? Why couldn’t it have been a woman, as the beautiful but very unusual – very “un-Orthodox” – icon on the right imagines?) They had seen Jesus die on the Cross, they were deeply troubled by how things ended, they are confused and sad. They saw all their hopes disappear on the Cross. But now they hear that some women had found the tomb empty. They keep walking, not knowing what to make of it all.

Only one person can explain it to them – Jesus himself. He joins them in their walk, but they don’t recognise him. Perhaps his appearance was different after the resurrection? What happens after he joins them we’ll explore in the next few sermons.

Only Jesus can satisfy our questions, our doubts. And he does come to us. We don’t recognise him, because he comes to us as one of the least of his brothers and sisters as we heard last week in our Gospel reading (Matthew 25:31-46). Very often the answers we need at a particular moment come from the most unexpected persons. This is the mystery of the unrecognised Jesus.

The mystery of the unrecognised Christ is all around us. We just need to open our minds and hearts to see it and hear it. Christ is with us – usually in the least expected places and persons. We might see him in the person we forgive or who forgives us. We might hear his wisdom from the mouth of a child. We might understand his Cross in a tragedy such as the one in Florida this past week. Everything is a mystery of his presence, his unrecognised presence.


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The “God is with us” Judgment


I’ve always been puzzled and somewhat amused by the choice of readings on this Meatfare Sunday. And by the way, that is a terrible English version of the Greek name for this Sunday: Κυριακή της Απόκρεω. Apokreo means “from meat”; in other words, leave-taking of meat, saying goodbye to meat! “Meatfare Sunday” almost sounds like a Sunday dedicated to celebrating meat!

The Epistle reading for this Sunday was presumably chosen by monks because of Paul’s line about not eating meat. But Paul’s statement has nothing to do with Lenten fasting! As always, it’s the context that we fail to recognize. It was customary in Corinth at that time to sell meat in the marketplace that had been offered in the pagan temples. So many Christians in Corinth were offended to see a fellow Christian eating such meat. Paul had no qualms about eating such meat, but if it meant that weak Christians would be offended (scandalized), he would give up meat. “Therefore, if food would cause my brother or sister to fall, I will never eat meat, lest I cause my brother or sister to fall.” Paul’s concern is for the other, for the brother or sister, and this text is the opposite of the usual Lenten focus on my own spiritual condition. The Epistle and Gospel today tell us that the focus is the other, the brother and sister. And that is the real meaning of Lent. The message is the exact opposite of the self-righteous, self-absorbed, finger-pointing Christianity that comes so easily to us.

Matthew’s Gospel is the “God with us” Gospel… Emmanuel

Michelangelo’s famous rendition of the Last Judgment in the Sistine Chapel. (click to enlarge)

If God is with us, how can life go on as usual? This is Matthew’s overall message. God is with us and nothing can be the same again. And yet Jesus near the end of his earthly ministry told his disciples, “the poor you will always have with you.” The poor will always be among us as a challenge, as the fulcrum for judgment. The Parable of the Sheep and Goats is the “God is with us” judgment.

Poverty is unacceptable to God. It is unacceptable because God created everything to be good. God created a world, a universe, that is abundant in all the necessities of life. I believe that before long, life will be discovered in other parts of the universe. I believe I will live to see proof that there is other life in the universe. And that will only show yet again that God is the God of abundance – not only here on our earth, but throughout the universe.

God’s purpose for us is to have life and have it abundantly. Those were Jesus’ words. So when people, God’s children, are denied the necessities of life, it is tragedy and sin beyond measure.

The parable about the hungry and thirsty, the naked, the stranger, the sick and the prisoner, is Jesus’ final teaching! It was his final parable. The very next words Matthew wrote after this parable are these:

When Jesus had finished saying all these things, he said to his disciples, “You know that after two days the Passover is coming, and the Son of Man will be handed over to be crucified.”

Then the chief priests and the elders of the people gathered in the palace of the high priest, who was called Caiaphas, and they conspired to arrest Jesus by stealth and kill him. But they said, “Not during the festival, or there may be a riot among the people.” (Matthew 26:1-5)

The parable was indeed the beginning of the end for Jesus. But did you notice the beginning of the parable?

“When the Son of Man comes in his glory, and all the angels with him, then he will sit on the throne of his glory. All the nations will be gathered before him, and he will separate people one from another as a shepherd separates the sheep from the goats…..

The parable is aimed at nations, entire societies. In chapter 16 of Ezekiel, God accuses Israel of “pride, excess of food, and prosperous ease, but [you] did not aid the poor and needy.”

Does that mean we are not judged individually? No, we are judged as individuals, but also as members of a nation, a society. What are the nation’s priorities? How do our personal priorities fit in? Is it hard to clothe the naked, to welcome a stranger, a homeless person into your home? Is it hard to visit a prison? And by the way, all English translations say “stranger” in this parable. But the Greek word is ξένος, which more accurately means foreigner, alien. All the things Jesus lists in this parable are difficult for most of us. But are they too difficult for a society, a nation? God says, No – there is no excuse for a nation to neglect the poor, the hungry, the homeless, the sick, the foreigner! No excuse.

But wait, what about the church? We are a society. Jesus placed the church in the world not to massage our egos, but to enable us as a group, as a community, to do what we can’t do as individuals or as a nation. Can’t we as a church do the things Jesus speaks in this parable? Can’t we feed the hungry, clothe the naked, give shelter to the homeless, visit the sick and the prisoner?

Why are we not more involved in soup kitchens? Why are we not out there advocating for the homeless and the refugees? Why do we call the poor lazy? Surely we can find ways to fulfill Jesus’ commands? Surely he is not asking us to do the impossible. Take something like ministry to prisoners. While it may be much harder to visit prisoners now than it was centuries, or perhaps even decades, ago, a ministry to prisoners is within the ability of every church. I remember many years ago Eula Chrissikos, despite her severe physical disability, used to visit regularly a prisoner at the state penitentiary, a man who was serving a life sentence for murder. I went along with her on one or two of her visits.

The church is capable of many things, but not so that we leave a calling card behind everything we do, so we receive thanks. Not to us, Lord, not to us the glory or the thanks. When, Lord, when did we see you naked or in prison? This is not a parable to depress us, but to challenge us to new faith. Every year we read this a week before Lent begins to remind us that Lent is not about our needs, but the needs of people around us. We are on a journey to Easter, but on this journey we encounter the other – whoever the other happens to be.


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The Truth About Repentance


I read an incredible story in the Washington Post.  A man is trying to get his son’s death sentence commuted to life. What was the son’s crime? He conspired with two other men to kill his parents and his brother! The mother and brother were killed and the father barely survived. The father forgave his son from the beginning, and is now begging the governor of Texas to commute his son’s death sentence. In many ways it reminds me of the Gospel parable of the prodigal son.

It’s a story of sin, self-awareness, love and repentance.  Who is more prodigal, the son in his sinfulness or the father in his forbearance and love? I’ve asked that question in other sermons in the past, and my answers is of course the father, he’s the real prodigal in this story, and he reflects the prodigal, excessive love of God the Father and his Son our Lord Jesus Christ. One could even call Jesus the prodigal son of his Father. Prodigal in love, humility and self-sacrifice.

We read this parable every year as part of the church’s preparation for Lent. But the monks, who over a thousand years ago decided what Gospel readings we would read at the Liturgy, got it wrong. This is a story of repentance, but not the kind of repentance monks preach.

I turn to Romans 2:1-4 for a particularly enlightening passage:

Therefore you have no excuse, whoever you are, when you judge others; for in passing judgment on another you condemn yourself, because you, the judge, are doing the very same things. You say, “We know that God’s judgment on those who do such things is in accordance with truth.” Do you imagine, whoever you are, that when you judge those who do such things and yet do them yourself, you will escape the judgment of God? Or do you despise the riches of his kindness and forbearance and patience? Do you not realize that God’s kindness is meant to lead you to repentance?

Focus on that last statement: Do you not realize that God’s kindness is meant to lead you to repentance? This question strikes me as the key we have ignored. We are taught by church tradition that repentance is about us grovelling to God and begging for forgiveness, which God then gives to us because he is kind and loving. Paul says it’s the other way around: It’s God’s kindness and goodness that leads us to repent! A very crucial difference, in my opinion.

Paul didn’t use the word μετάνοια very often in his letters, probably because he was very aware how people are prone to take it legalistically, which is precisely the way it has been taken for most of church history. Paul uses the word here in Romans and in only two other places:

2 Cor 7:9-10 Now I rejoice, not because you were grieved, but because your grief led to repentance; for you felt a godly grief, so that you were not harmed in any way by us. For godly grief produces a repentance that leads to salvation and brings no regret, but worldly grief produces death. Crucial contrast: ἡ γὰρ κατὰ θεὸν λύπη…ἡ δὲ τοῦ κόσμου λύπη.

2 Tim 2:25 And the Lord’s servant must not be quarrelsome but kindly to everyone, an apt teacher, patient, correcting opponents with gentleness. God may perhaps grant them repentance so they may come to knowledge of the truth.

So Paul basically says that two things lead to repentance: God’s kindness and the grief that comes from God κατὰ θεὸν. The only repentance that has any chance of producing genuine faith is the repentance that arises from God’s kindness and the grief that God plants in our souls. It is not repentance that we manufacture in ourselves in order to bargain with God.

What kind of repentance did the prodigal son experience in the parable? He was hungry, he missed being in his father’s home where he could eat anything and as much as he wanted. “But when he came to himself,” Luke tells us, he decided to return home. He came to himself, εἰς ἑαυτὸν δὲ ἐλθὼν. That’s not repentance; that’s just awareness of how hungry he was and how well fed he was at his father’s home!

He goes home, speaking his well rehearsed speech – as a form of bargaining – to his father, who doesn’t even listen to it. The father is not interested in grovelling and long speeches. He has been waiting in love and ready to pour all his kindness on his son. He doesn’t even say I forgive you. He is all kindness and love. And it is here, I believe, that repentance happened in the son, although the parable says nothing more about him. I bet he also experienced that godly grief that Paul wrote about. It’s left to us to picture the scene and what transformation happened in the soul of that young son. The older son objects to the easy way the father took his son back, and the father teaches him also the ways of God.

This is repentance, dear friends: To receive the love and kindness of God. Let the kindness of God lead you to repentance. If Lent this year does nothing else than reveal the kindness of God it will be a transformational. time. Let it begin here at the Liturgy, where God waits to embrace us and clothe us with love and mercy and the grace of our Lord Jesus Christ.

AFTERWORD: A friend told me about a Fresh Air story he heard this morning on NPR. It concerns a white supremacist who changed his ways because of the kindness that was shown him by people that he targeted with his racism. It is a perfect example of kindness leading to repentance! Here are his own words:

What it came down to was receiving compassion from the people that I least deserved it [from], when I least deserved it. Just before I left the movement, I opened a record store to sell white-power music that I was importing from all over the world. In fact, I was one of the only stores in the United States that was selling this music. And I also knew that to stay in the community and get their support I would have to sell other music. So I started to sell punk-rock music and heavy metal and hip-hop and when the customers came in to buy that music, who were often African-American, or Jewish, or gay, at first I was very standoffish, but they kept coming back.

The community, even though it’s Chicago, everybody knew what I was doing, everybody knew how hateful I was and how violent I was, but these customers came in despite that. And over time I started to have meaningful interactions with them, for the first time in my life.

In fact, I had never in my life engaged in a meaningful dialogue with the people that I thought I hated, and it was these folks who showed me empathy when I least deserved it, and they were the ones that I least deserved it from. I started to recognize that I had more in common with them than the people I had surrounded myself for eight years with — that these people, that I thought I hated, took it upon themselves to see something inside of me that I didn’t even see myself, and it was because of that connection that I was able to humanize them and that destroyed the demonization and the prejudice that was happening inside of me.