Are You Like Him?

Years ago when I was in seminary, I served a small mission in Chicago. The priest was something of a mentor for me during that time. There was a young girl in the congregation, between two and three years-old. She was convinced that the priest was Jesus. (Well, he was wearing a white robe and he did have a beard.) One Sunday, during his sermon (delivered from the nave rather than the pulpit), she got loose from her parents and went bounding up the aisle. She stopped in front of him and said, “Jesus!” He stopped his sermon, picked her up, and continued while holding her in his arms. When the sermon was completed he took her back to her parents. After the service, he said to me, “Do you know what happened today?” He explained, “She will grow up and have no memory of me. But she will never forget that one day, Jesus picked her up in his sermon.”

I’ve never forgotten the lesson. In my own years in parishes, I’ve had more than a few children make the same connection. Every time, I remember that day, and I remember that it matters ever so much what I do. If I’m not Him, then, at least, I’d better be like Him.

A young couple was inquiring into the Church. They attended a class on the Church’s moral teaching. Their question startled me, “What concern should the church have with our moral life?” My answer startled them. “It’s quite simple. You’re raising my children.” There is no moral free-ride for adults. Whether you want it or not, children are watching you and making choices and decisions. Stanley Hauerwas, the noted theologian and ethicist, has said that the good news/bad news about children is that, no matter what you do, your children are most likely to turn out to be like you. And, of course, they will be really like you, not as you imagine yourself to be.

Among the more striking verses in Scripture is St. John’s declaration:

Beloved, we are God’s children now; it does not yet appear what we shall be, but we know that when he appears we shall be like him, for we shall see him as he is. (1 Jn. 3:2)

It is a very sweet promise. It is also a revelation. If you are not like Him now, chances are you do not see Him clearly, or know Him well. I think of this often when I am encountering other Christians. It is easy to have a facility with doctrine and Christian thought. However, that same facility can be deeply misleading. It is possible to mistake such knowledge for saving knowledge. At the same time, it is not uncommon to disregard such things as kindness, generosity, and gentleness as nothing more than “morality.” The Christian life cannot be divided in such a manner. Saving knowledge is manifest as the character of Christ within us. Without this knowledge (which is synonymous with “character”) everything we take to be “knowledge,” such as doctrine and Scripture, will be woefully misunderstood, even to the point where it is working death within us.

In the Divine Liturgy, we are told, “Let us love one another, so that with one mind we may confess, ‘Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, the Trinity One in essence and undivided.’” The Creed is utterly opaque to a heart that is not at peace, or that is at enmity. The words, “I believe” in such a case, mean nothing (or worse).

The vast majority of Christians through the ages probably knew less “theology” than today’s catechumenal converts. The Church has not thrived or survived through its mastery of such things. It is, instead, the character of Christ, acquired through the sacraments and the patient keeping of the Commandments that has preserved the faith. Such a foundation can fathom mysteries.

Only the character of Christ can understand the mysteries of the faith. The words of books, often the works of saints, will not yield themselves to a heart that has alienated itself from love.

St. John has another small passage worth noting:

Beloved, let us love one another; for love is of God, and he who loves is born of God and knows God. He who does not love does not know God; for God is love. (1 Jn. 4:7-8)

One way that I have understood this can be expressed in this manner: We only know God to the extent that we love our enemies. When we see hatred and anger, the lack of kindness and generosity, we may rest assured that we are not being confronted by God. It is a place for patience and generosity, but not a place of imitation.

Are we like Him? If you truly want to know God, there is no other path.

About Fr. Stephen Freeman

Fr. Stephen is a priest of the Orthodox Church in America, Pastor Emeritus of St. Anne Orthodox Church in Oak Ridge, Tennessee. He is also author of Everywhere Present and the Glory to God podcast series.



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52 responses to “Are You Like Him?”

  1. Abigail Avatar
    Abigail

    Thank you, Father, for sharing what has been given to you. I’ve never commented but I have been reading for years and I am so grateful for the way I have seen Him in your thoughts.

  2. Mark Spurlock Avatar
    Mark Spurlock

    This is a very comforting post, Father Stephen.

    “what you do, your children are most likely to turn out to be like you. And, of course, they will be really like you, not as you imagine yourself to be.”

    I often feel my children have some virtues in far greater quantity than I do, so the above statement makes me feel good almost to the point of causing pride. But then I remember that Nick and Catherine have also had the strong influence of their grandparents and, for their most formative years, their mother. At least my example has not undone the good work of others. My children would have to say what, if anything, they learned (in part) from me, but I do hope that it has been their gentleness toward others.

  3. Fr. Stephen Avatar

    Abigail,
    Thank you! Blessings!

  4. Fr. Stephen Avatar

    Mark,
    Over the years, I have found the notion of fractals to be helpful. Just as they look like us (sort of) – they are fractals of our appearance. In the same way, they “fractalize” our character to some extent – both for good and ill. Fr. Alexander Schmemann said that the spiritual life consists in “how you deal with what you’ve been dealt.” Just so.

  5. Anne Avatar
    Anne

    Boy am I glad God is merciful and loving. That is about all I can comment on. Im hopeful to repent and start new today. My adult children need alot of prayers and I need more. Thants how I am today, thankful that I get to pray.
    Much love,

  6. Michael Bauman Avatar
    Michael Bauman

    Hamlet had the right question: “To be or not to be.” He had absolutely wrong answers.

    Mt 4:17 “From that time on Jesus began to preach: Repent for the Kingdom of Heaven is at hand.”

    John, the Baptist said the same thing earlier.

    Repentance is hard. But freeing.

  7. Matthew Avatar
    Matthew

    I want to say and ask so much, but I´ll attempt to limit myself. There was a time I was taught and believed that sanctification (what most Protestants see as the road to glorification) was merely optional for the believer. The argument was that Christianity is not about moral living per se, but rather about faith in what Jesus Christ did on the cross for all of humanity. When we turn things into an escapade of morality, we are moving closer and closer to turning our faith into a project of works; so the argument went. I´m not sure how we dealt with James´words about faith without works being dead!

    As I now embrace salvation and its inherent meaning from the Orthodox perspective, I see a bridge between the image of Christ that has always been in me and the likeness of Christ that I hope to become. We might call that bridge the Church, though since I am not officially Orthodox my bridge´s name is spiritual discipline. It does indeed take effort to co-labor with God´s grace given to us in Jesus Christ in order to live a Christ-like, moral life — and it does indeed matter.

    In terms of theological knowledge … well … I am currently working on a masters of theology. That said, I am learning to recognize that my intellect needs to be formed by a devout spiritual life. Didn´t a church father say something like “A theologian is one who prays and if one prays they are indeed a theologian.”? I suppose even a little old Orthodox village lady in the hills of Greece can experience and understand her faith in profound ways — ways that might be foreign to even someone with a masters degree in theology. Orthodoxy is teaching me so much and for that I am very thankful.

  8. Simon Avatar
    Simon

    “How you deal with what you’ve been dealt.”

    Needed to hear that this morning.

  9. Dean Avatar
    Dean

    Thanks Matthew.
    Yes, God won’t give us a theology test when we stand before Him. It will probably be, as Met. Jonah has noted, more in line with Christ’s words in Matt. 25, feeding the hungry, visiting the sick, etc.

  10. Owen Kelly Avatar
    Owen Kelly

    I used to sincerely believe that “children of God” referred only to those who consciously knew it. But such a reality lies beyond our thoughts and feelings.

    “For in him we live and move and have our being.” As some of your own poets have said, “We are his offspring.” (Acts 17:28)

    Since we are God’s offspring, it is God’s creative act, not our choice, that makes us God’s children. This is enormously comforting to me. But scripture also speaks of “the power to become the children of God.” This becoming refers, I think, to realizing the ontological truth of who we already are. God manifests himself in and as his creation. Thus we cannot lose the divine image, even though the ignorance of sin requires that we become what we already are by acquiring the divine likeness. It’s the ignorance of sin that makes “enemies” in the first place. But God is Love even (especially?) in the midst of our madness.

  11. Fr. Stephen Avatar

    Owen,
    There’s the classic examplar of confession found in The Pilgrim Continues His Way, usually appended to the Way of a Pilgrim, that begins, “I do not love God.” St. John, when speaking of love in his small epistle, is clearly speaking in the hortatory sense – he is exhorting his readers to love one another. I can only presume that if he’s telling his readers to love one another, then there is some deficienty in that part of their lives (of course).

    I would also invoke St. Gregory of Nyssa who envisioned our growth in Christ to be never-ending. If it is never-ending, then there is always something to be added. We are always being urged to love.

    If someone lacks love, they should first, pray for grace, and secondly, do an act of love. Begin with kindness and generosity to the poor. And when you give to them, pray for God to have mercy on you. Love is not an idea – it is an action – a communion.

    May God give us grace.

  12. Simon Avatar
    Simon

    Only the character of Christ can understand the mysteries of the faith.

    This is a critical statement. The character of Christ is ontological–not a psychological disposition or temperament. When the scripture says, “And this is eternal life, that they may know You, the only true God, and Jesus Christ whom You have sent” we may have any number of misunderstandings in mind. One way to misunderstand the verse is to think that an encyclopedic knowledge of the faith is life-giving. Another misunderstanding would be having a “personal relationship” with Christ. The knowledge that matters is the ontological knowledge of communion, or else we are right back to magical incantations.

    Communion is Being itself. To the extent that the mystery of communion is realized/revealed in one’s own being, then the possibility exists that the knowledge of communion (which is probably more like Wisdom) will be reflected in other dimensions, like understanding and knowledge.

    Knowledge of spiritual things is made possible in being conformed to the image of Christ, which entails a Christological ontology.

  13. Dee of St Herman Avatar
    Dee of St Herman

    Father,
    Does Christ have an ‘elect’ or does the Orthodox Church have a teaching on this? I’m not speaking of clergy per se but of whom Christ calls whether clergy or not.

    I ask because sometimes I think I hear this and ask for a better understanding.

  14. Fr. Stephen Avatar

    Dee,
    There is no Orthodox teaching that identifies an “elect” and a “non-elect.” It would rather more accurate to say that all human beings are “elect,” in the sense that God wills that all be saved. Sometimes the Scriptures seem to use the term “elect” to describe those who have actively responded to this calling. As such, it’s something of an endearment rather than a technical item in the account of salvation.

  15. Owen Kelly Avatar
    Owen Kelly

    Father,
    Thank you for those words. Just to clarify one item, I meant “realizing” in both senses: both (1) to recognize and (2) to bring about. So whatever progress we make (that infinite growth in God) must be a practical realization of love in communion. I tend to linger over the conceptual, so thanks for bringing me back to the tangible, sacramental reality of life. After all, being a “child” or “son” of someone in scripture normally means to be like them in practical action. And God always acts in love.

    Yet I still wonder about Acts 17, “We are his offspring.” Is it fair to say that we are children of God inherently, simply by God’s creative activity of imaging himself in us, while at the same time, because of sin, we must realize this reality in a practical likeness to the God who is love? Can I say of my unbelieving neighbor – or even the most murderous despot in history – that they are a child of God but just don’t know it (yet)?

  16. Simon Avatar
    Simon

    Owen,

    I think that the psychological expressions of good and bad behavior are misdirections. If I am wrong, I am hoping that Father will still post the comment and then correct it. The Philokalia speaks throughout–at least in the four volumes we have in English–of an ignorance and forgetfulness of God that is the darkness of sin. In fact, the etymology for the word for truth in Greek is “unforgotten” or “not forgotten.” My personal understanding, which is fraught with error, is that the all Creation is the Child of God. And so the microcosms of Creation that each of us are is a child of God. I would lean towards an understanding that affirms that the “worst” of human behavior is a deep forgetfulness and alienation within that person. I continue to come back to this quote from the Philokalia that “The soul is at peace with God when it is at peace with itself and has become wholly deiform.” Deiformity and peace within oneself are coextensive, and I would think that with peace comes with an increasing mindfulness of God.

    I also tend to think of the ‘elect’ as the Church collectively and its members individually. In a fractal sense, whatever is true of the Church is true of each believer.

  17. Matthew Avatar
    Matthew

    From John´s Gospel chapter 1:

    “He came to that which was his own, but his own did not receive him. Yet to all who did receive him, to those who believed in his name, he gave the right to become children of God— children born not of natural descent, nor of human decision or a husband’s will, but born of God.”

    I would love to know the Orthodox understanding of these verses. They seem to suggest that belief is what makes us children of God. Prior to belief, are we simply creations (rather than children) of God bearing God´s image?

  18. Owen Kelly Avatar
    Owen Kelly

    Matthew, just one brief observation. The nation of Israel are referred to as God’s children, which the passage quoted calls “his own.” Yet they also clearly “did not receive him.” It’s an interesting problem, probably having to do with language, but perhaps also one to do with a failure to realize our ontological identity.

  19. Mark Spurlock Avatar
    Mark Spurlock

    “Prior to belief, are we simply creations (rather than children) of God bearing God´s image?

    Matthew, as Owen says, I think it is easy to for the figurative nature of language to cause problems. The verse refers to having received him and believing in his name, rather than belief alone (we are told the devils “believe” in James 2:19, after all).

    The Prodigal Son and the discourse that Jesus has with the Pharisees in John 8:31-47. seem helpful to me in answering your question. Because of the Fall, we had become slaves to Sin, rather than children of God. Through Christ, we can be reborn into the father-child relationship.

    Personally, I find anything that relies on sequential time (and thus cause and effect) difficult for us to comprehend and put into words in relation to God because we are at a loss as to how to apply time to eternity and cause and effect to the First Cause.

    The “prior to” of the question, in other words, relies on something slippery when we start speaking of God. For example, further in John 8 (58), Jesus tells the Pharisees, “Verily, verily, I say to you, before Abraham was, I am.”

  20. Fr. Stephen Avatar

    Matthew, Owen, Simon, et al
    I think it is correct to say that we are all children of God. It is also correct to speak about becoming a child of God, etc. It’s simply the multivalent character of language, dependent on context, etc.

    Simon’s take is quite agreeable to me.

  21. Simon Avatar
    Simon

    Mark,

    Is it really that we are “just creations”? How would you feel about looking at language of change in the Scriptures as language that merely represents how revealing or manifesting appears to us at a certain level? Is it that we weren’t children of God and now through baptism that is what we have become or is it possible that our true identity as children of God is revealed through baptism?

    Just to be clear, I am not suggesting we replace one frame with another frame. What I suggesting is that the one-story universe of Orthodoxy perhaps leans towards a theme or frame towards hidden realities or mysteries being revealed through sacraments. That includes ourselves as well.

    Father Zossima said, “God took seeds from different worlds and sowed them on this earth, and His garden grew, and everything came up that could come up, but all growing things live and are alive only through the feeling of their contact with other mysterious worlds. If that feeling grows weak or is destroyed in you, what has grown up in you will die. Then you will become indifferent to life and even grow to hate it. That’s what I think.” In my own erroneous understanding, that it is the business of the Church and the Sacraments to reveal our ‘contact with other mysterious worlds.’

  22. Michael Bauman Avatar
    Michael Bauman

    In light of what Simon writes:

    I am reminded of my senior year in college. I was a history major and was given the assignment to study and critique Nietzsche in historical context. I spent the whole year reading him in English translation and his primary interpreter at the time, Walter Kaufmann. I finally wrote my paper which I got a A on.

    Over the years I have learned that Nietzsche’s Will to Power is deadly in a spiritual realm AND in the social and political realm as well. Most people have bought into Nietzsche’s ideas — most unknowingly. The Will to Power has become the Weltanschauung. We are saturated by in body and soul from conception until death.

    Only submission of one’s heart to the person of Jesus Christ allows anyone to be free of it or at least not simply submit to it.

    The Gospels address man’s tendency to sinfully deny God and go our own way. The fruits of that way and how to be victorious Christ reveals on the Cross.

    So our way is, too, the way of the Cross involving repentance, right worship, obedience and service to others.

    Bless and do not curse. Give thanks for all things. Even one’s own failings in a sense because my failings and short comings are what I can offer up for transformation into Jesus Christ Himself.

    It is the essence of the Jesus Prayer and Life.

    I thank God for each and everyone here and pray His mercy and Joy may be in each of your hearts.

  23. Owen Kelly Avatar
    Owen Kelly

    Simon,
    Well said! That philokalaic wisdom astounds me. I think there is a certain transparency to the Spirit, sometimes called union with God, that dissolves the sense we’ve all experienced of being an isolated material fragment at odds with other discreet material entities in a hostile universe en route to certain death. Instead, in the awareness of God’s presence, peace reigns. I rejoiced reading, “all Creation is the Child of God. And so the microcosms of Creation that each of us are is a child of God.” We need that cosmic Christianity. It brings to mind a quote by a contemporary Orthodox theologian, Fr. John Behr. Putting Church and in the context of the cosmos, he says, “I can no longer see the church as a select group of people called out from unbelievers. Rather, the Church is the whole of creation seen eschatologically, from which we already see islands in the present, called out from the world (in the negative sense).” I think that’s a really rich vision of divine election.

  24. Simon Avatar
    Simon

    Owen, that’s a very solid quote from Fr. Behr.

    After reading the book The Roots of Christian Mysticism someone would be hard pressed to argue against this ‘cosmic’ vision as the kernel of the Orthodox faith. In The Mystical Theology of the Eastern Church Lossky writes “In his way to Union with God, man in no way leaves creatures aside but gathers together in his love the whole cosmos disordered by sin, that it may at last be transfigured by grace.” And in The Brothers Karamazov Fr. Zossima says “Brothers, have no fear of men’s sin. Love a man even in his sin, for that is the semblance of Divine Love and is the highest love on earth. Love all of God’s creation, the whole and every grain of sand in it. Love every leaf, every ray of God’s light. Love the animals, love the plants, love everything. If you love everything, you will perceive the divine mystery in things.” In the introduction to On the Cosmic Mystery of Jesus Christ the authors write that “all christians are called…to participate in the transfiguration of the cosmos–indeed to be a miniature demonstration of its realization–and thereby to share actively in Christ’s mediation of a new creation.”

    Theosis of the part is theosis of the whole–at least at some level. That really falls out of the syntax of communion (the one-story universe). Again Fr. Zossima talks about the ecstasy of an all embracing love: “My brother asked the birds to forgive him; that sounds senseless, but it is right; for all is like an ocean, all is flowing and blending; a touch in one place sets up movement at the other end of the earth. It may be senseless to beg forgiveness of the birds, but birds would be happier at your side–a little happier, anyway–and children and all animals, if you were nobler than you are now. It’s all like an ocean, I tell you. Then you would pray to the birds too, consumed by an all-embracing love, in a sort of transport, and pray that they too will forgive you your sin. Treasure this ecstasy, however senseless it may seem to men.”

    Regarding the transfiguration, Jesus did not become something that he wasn’t before, although that might be how it seemed. In the transfiguration, Jesus reveals something of what was there all along, but hidden. That is how I understand the transfiguration of creation. It isn’t becoming something that it is not–although I would never argue against that language. The transfiguration of creation is the revealing of what was there all along. I also get the distinct impression from that this wisdom is not entirely for our benefit (Eph 3:10).

  25. Michael Bauman Avatar
    Michael Bauman

    Do we not have to “go down” before we “go up”?
    The Cross and the Grave come before the Resurrection and the Ascension. And yet, as we go down Christ Himself meets us to raise up.

  26. Dee of St Herman Avatar
    Dee of St Herman

    I’m enjoying and delighting in the discussion of the eschatological role of the Church.

    I hope I’m not being a bummer or too pedantic to mention, whether we speak of theosis or transfiguration of the universal cosmos or the personal mini cosmos (the heart of the human being), that the process of salvation is cruciform for all of us and for all things. There is an emptying, a death, and a resurrection. We follow Christ in this manner (His Way), and as far as I understand, we (the Church) bring the universe with us.

    Nevertheless, following along with the thread in this conversation, in the Creed, we do speak of the age to come as a revelation or a transfiguration of all creation, of all that exists. And there is no existence without God.

    I humbly put my 2 cents worth in and hope it isn’t too far off the mark. And ask for correction as needed.

  27. Dee of St Herman Avatar
    Dee of St Herman

    I have to admit I love the quote of Fr Zossima on the birds (Simon’s comment on The Brothers Karamazov). Beautiful!

  28. Owen Kelly Avatar
    Owen Kelly

    Michael and Dee,
    You give a good reminder about the cross. Orthodox Christians refer to Christ’s death as a victory, our Victory. I think Fr. Dumitru Staniloae is particularly good on this. He was deeply involved with translating the Philokalia and the works of St. Maximus the Confessor into Romanian, and he suffered greatly under Communism. He spoke with a cosmic tenor about “the cross imprinted on the gift of the world.”

  29. Owen Kelly Avatar
    Owen Kelly

    Here’s a passage from the work of Dumitru Staniloae on the cross.

    “The cross is the sign and the means of the salvation of the world. All the world is a gift of God, and by the cross all the world has to be transcended in God. Only in Christ is the meaning of the cross fully revealed. In the cross of Christ the salvation of the world is founded, the salvation of the whole cosmos, because by the cross the tendency of the whole cosmos to transcend itself in God is accomplished. One cannot conceive of a world which is not saved, a world which would always remain in suffering, enclosed in itself, a world in which the cross would not fully fulfill the destiny of the world. Suffering would have no meaning at all unless it was leading the world towards its salvation in God.”

  30. Matthew Avatar
    Matthew

    Forgive me, but I´m still a bit confused about this children of God issue.

    If the portion from chapter 1 of John´s Gospel that I quoted should not be understood literally or even in terms of cause and effect, then how should it be understood? If we are already children of God, but sin makes problems with this distinction and the Church + sacraments are there to reveal to us what we truly are when sin is dealt with ….. then why didn´t John make this clearer? There seems to be no indication in this portion of Scripture that we are truly children of God who then need to be gently reminded of this truth in our baptism or through other revelatory sacraments.

  31. Fr. Stephen Avatar

    Matthew,
    We read Scripture not in isolation but in common with the whole of Scripture. So, we have in Acts, the statement that “we are all God’s children.” And we have in St. John a statement about “becoming God’s children.” Both are true – and understanding either of them means understand both of them. Thus, we ask, “In what sense is this true? How is it to be understood.” Sometimes the answer is, “Hmm. I’m not sure.”

    It is more than possible to treat St. John’s statement incorrectly, in which we would conclude that the “not children of God” must be children of the devil, deserving of eternal damnation, etc. And this has been done not infrequently in Christian thought – generally resulting in a distorted Christianity. It would also be possible to treat the passage from Acts in a modern-liberal-inclusivist manner in which we would say, “Everybody is the child of God, Baptism, communion, etc., are not really necessary…” yielding, again, a distorted Christianity.

    St. John says, “Beloved, we are the sons of God, but it does not yet appear what we shall be…” So, he has an already/not yet within his understanding. We are already the children of God (in that we were created in His image, etc.). We are also the children of God in Holy Baptism, as we have proactively embraced the reality of the truth of our existence (for there is no other true existence other than the one given us by God). And we are yet to be children in the fullest sense – that which will be revealed at the end of all things. But that which is revealed at the end of all things does not destroy that which we have always been – but fulfills it.

    Fr. Alexander Schmemann said that sacraments do not make something to be what it is not, but reveal it to be what it truly is. This is very much in concert with the Fathers (cf. Nyssa, and Dionysius, esp.).

  32. Mark Spurlock Avatar
    Mark Spurlock

    Matthew,

    What do you think is meant by “children of God”? When I wrote of “figurative nature of language,” I was referring to this quality in all language–that we approximate meaning, even when we are not consciously using metaphor and simile. The scripture you originally quoted acknowledge this by saying “children born not of natural descent, nor of human decision or a husband’s will.” In other words, not children in the usual denotation. (I’m reminded of those who asked whether a man could enter a second time into his mother’s womb in trying to understand how one could be “born again.” That’s what comes from focusing too much on a single phrase 🙂 )

    Father Stephen’s “We read Scripture not in isolation but in common with the whole of Scripture” is of course the answer to your follow up question–which is why I referenced the Prodigal Son and the later debate with the Pharisees. Both of those passages in my opinion help flesh out the relationship we have with the Father as His children–but it’s language that occurs over and over in scripture.

    Another part of humility for me in my own journey has been realizing that, regardless of how intelligent I think I am, it is unlikely that I can read texts from thousands of years ago with my single intellect and reach a conclusion that is radically different from the Church’s and yet mine be correct. To be sure, I have many difficulties with many scriptures and the “consensus,” but how Orthodoxy has changed me is no longer believing that I have to know and understand it all (be right!). Perhaps my theology is wrong on this or that point.

    In the end, the child relationship helps with this too. As a parent, you would not expect a child to “get” all the adult subjects. You do want your child, however, to trust you to know what’s best and have faith that you (the adult) are taking care of the big picture.

    My understanding from the word being made flesh is that Jesus exemplifies what it means to be a child of God. His example allows us to get past the crudities (and necessary simplifications) of human languages so that we can know the blueprint. That’s the big picture that anyone can get even without understanding stuff such as “What is time like for God? Do the terms before and after make any sense in the context of eternity?”

  33. Michael Bauman Avatar
    Michael Bauman

    “Fr. Alexander Schmemann said that sacraments do not make something to be what it is not, but reveal it to be what it truly is. This is very much in concert with the Fathers (cf. Nyssa, and Dionysius, esp.).”

    Father, would it be true to say the same about our transformation through repentance and confession?

  34. Dee of St Herman Avatar
    Dee of St Herman

    Owen,
    Following Father Stephen’s reference to bring together threads of our understanding:

    Your quote from Fr John Behr:

    “I can no longer see the church as a select group of people called out from unbelievers. Rather, the Church is the whole of creation seen eschatologically, from which we already see islands in the present, called out from the world (in the negative sense).”

    And your quote from Dumitru Staniloae

    The cross is the sign and the means of the salvation of the world. All the world is a gift of God, and by the cross all the world has to be transcended in God. Only in Christ is the meaning of the cross fully revealed. In the cross of Christ the salvation of the world is founded, the salvation of the whole cosmos, because by the cross the tendency of the whole cosmos to transcend itself in God is accomplished.

    And Simon’s quote:

    In the introduction to On the Cosmic Mystery of Jesus Christ the authors write that “all christians are called…to participate in the transfiguration of the cosmos–indeed to be a miniature demonstration of its realization–and thereby to share actively in Christ’s mediation of a new creation.

    Provide a beautiful glimpse into the depths and breadth of the dimensions to Ephesians 3:10

    Indeed, the birds and even the very rocks on this earth implore us to enter communion with Christ.

  35. Fr. Stephen Avatar

    Michael,
    Yes. Quite so. Evil is “extrinsic” to our nature – it is a parasite. When we confess our sins and repent, we are not changing ourselves, but ridding ourselves of the evil which has infected us. This is a very strong theme in the writings of St. Dionysius.

  36. Andrew Avatar
    Andrew

    “The vast majority of Christians through the ages probably knew less “theology” than today’s catechumenal converts. The Church has not thrived or survived through its mastery of such things. It is, instead, the character of Christ, acquired through the sacraments and the patient keeping of the Commandments that has preserved the faith. Such a foundation can fathom mysteries.”

    True words that I continue to learn and relearn. I’m a thinker and I love reading. And there’s certainly much good to be gained in spiritual reading. But I’ve also found it very easy to confuse reading for doing. Thinking spiritual thoughts doesn’t equal true heart change, but if I’m not careful I can fool myself into thinking it does.

  37. Michael Bauman Avatar
    Michael Bauman

    Andrew,
    Right you are. The first time I attended an Orthodox Liturgy I got smacked up the side of my head by the presence and welcome 9f our Lord. I have read Orthodox theology since then and the Bible, but mostly I have concentrated on learning to pray–especially the Jesus Prayer, going to Confession and Divine Liturgy. Jesus is in us..
    Still learning but doing better.

  38. Owen Kelly Avatar
    Owen Kelly

    Dee,
    Thank you for your encouragement.

  39. Simon Avatar
    Simon

    I think that the apostle’s treatment of sin in Romans 7 gets glossed over. If I had to guess it’s because we are really afraid to admit what it might mean for our vaunted and so-called free-will: “For I do not understand my own actions. For I do not do what I want, but I do the very thing I hate. Now if I do what I do not want, I agree with the law, that it is good. So now it is no longer I who do it, but sin that dwells within me. For I know that nothing good dwells in me, that is, in my flesh. For I have the desire to do what is right, but not the ability to carry it out. For I do not do the good I want, but the evil I do not want is what I keep on doing. Now if I do what I do not want, it is no longer I who do it, but sin that dwells within me.”

    There are two expressions that I tend to pair together. The apostle’s “I do not understand my own actions” and Jesus’ words from the Cross “they know not what they do.” I agree. There is very little I actually understand about myself. And so these two phrases have stuck with me. They have also reframed how I think about confession and repentance. I think kernel of confession boils down to this: It is only through confession that we can wash away the defilement, confusion, insanity, and foul stench of sin before it forms a painful lesion.

    It might not be my fault that I can only find work as a honeydipper. I may have no choice about that. But I am still going to go home at night and take a bath to get the defilement, filth, and foul stench off of me before it makes me and everybody else sick.

  40. Matthew Avatar
    Matthew

    Dear Fr. Stephen, Mark, Owen, and everyone else 🙂

    As I have said before, I really appreciate the time taken to write these comments and responses. I find them to be very helpful.

    This idea of the Church and the sacraments being revelatory and incarnational has really hit me hard this morning. I have never thought of it that way before. So who am I really? What am I really? What is creation really? Who is God really? I cannot believe I am revisiting these questions after more than 25 years as a Christian! What I can say is that a poor reading of Scripture isolated from the Church can really give one crazy, scary, and unhelpful answers to these questions I think!

  41. Matthew Avatar
    Matthew

    Speaking of the sacraments …

    There are a lot of Protestants these days who (the following are my words only) like to play in the toy chest of Orthodoxy. They kind of pick and choose what they like about Orthodoxy and apply those treasures to their own contexts without actually becoming Orthodox.

    If a Protestant church believes and teaches that the bread and wine are the body and blood of Jesus Christ; if they believe and teach that baptism is also sacramental and the true way one enters the Church — are these churches then as equally sacramental as the Orthodox Church? My thoughts run to apostolic succession, but I cannot be certain, hence my question(s).

  42. Fr. Stephen Avatar

    Matthew,
    People do many things that are less than perfect – some of them are salutary.

    There is a very famous case of Protestants experimenting with “orthodoxy.” In 1979, a group of protestant pastors formed the “Evangelical Orthodox Church,” and began to practice a “form” of Orthodoxy. They also began conversations with Orthodox leaders and teachers. It was a complicated story (personalities, etc.). In time, they were formally received by confession and chrismation into the Orthodox Church, under the jurisdiction of the Patriarch of Antioch. Over time, their practices, etc., were regularized and they have now long since blended into the full life of the Church. My son-in-law’s father was one of the original priests in this group – and is a very fine pastor in Memphis. So – it worked out.

    I think, in the long run, that case worked out because they were people of good heart who were seeking the truth rather than any selfish end.

    Later, a group of around 10 parishes who had not followed the original group into the Antiochian jurisdiction, were received into the OCA. I worked with one of those parishes when I was Dean of Appalachia in the OCA’s Diocese of the South. That parish is now a thriving Church with somewhere over 200 members.

    In Africa, Orthodoxy has received not just whole parishes, but entire African denominations. Orthodoxy need not be jealous for its treasure – but generous. These are times of an in-gathering – a mystery that I truly do not understand but for which I give thanks. That many people must “feel” their way into the fullness is not surprising. It is a call for patience.

    I will add to this that I’ve also seen it work badly – that darkened hearts simply do dark things. So it has ever been.

  43. Owen Kelly Avatar
    Owen Kelly

    Matthew, I gladly leave the official statement of what the Orthodox Church believes about other Christians (and beyond) to those with the grace to answer. But for what it’s worth, I resonate with the following statement by Orthodox thinker, Olivier Clement.

    “The Spirit abounds most plentifully in the sacramental body of Christ, but wherever the Spirit is at work in history and in the universe, the Church is secretly present. There is not a blade of grass that does not grow within the Church, not a constellation that does not gravitate towards her, every quest for truth, for justice, for beauty is made within her (even if the prophets and great creative spirits have sometimes been persecuted by the ecclesiastical institution), every scrap of meditation, of wisdom, of celebration is gathered in by her (even though Christianity has at certain times formed itself into a religious association that ignored or fought against other people).”

  44. Dee of St Herman Avatar
    Dee of St Herman

    Matthew,
    You’ve presented the answer in your last sentence.

    Roman Catholic people are also told they are the Orthodox Church. And I’ve seen websites of Anglican churches who claim they are Orthodox as well.

    There is only one Church the Orthodox Church. The schism between Rome and the Eastern Church officially occurred in the year 1154, although historians say the split began before that point. All Protestant Churches developed from the Reformation onward, despite some who want to claim otherwise.

    Some Eastern rite Roman Catholic Churches want to claim Orthodoxy while remaining under Papal ‘rule’ (for want of better words) and without change to their theological differences to Orthodoxy.

    These circumstances remind me of Christ’s warnings (Matthew 24:4-5) as the Church is the Bride and Body of Christ, so it would seem that many have come attempting to take what is Hers and deceive many.

    May Our Lord help us all and grant us all His mercy.

  45. Dee of St Herman Avatar
    Dee of St Herman

    Dear Matthew,
    You now see different answers to your question. I am not skilled ecumenically. To the best of my ability and understanding I speak the truth concerning the Orthodox Church. In my perspectives I am more inclined to draw a bold line of difference between the Orthodox Church and other confessions, likely due to my personal history as much as the history of the Church.

  46. Dee of St Herman Avatar
    Dee of St Herman

    Sorry, the schism between the East and Rome occurred 1054

  47. Matthew Avatar
    Matthew

    Thanks so much everyone. I am learning so much.

    Thanks especially for the stories from your ministry experience Fr. Stephen.

  48. Simon Avatar
    Simon

    When it comes to Orthodoxy “versus” other religions, I have learned to relax. Everyone’s life is circumscribed by God’s grace so that gives me a lot of comfort. To the Catholic I would say be Catholic. Be a devout Catholic, but be kind and generous to those who are not Catholic. To the Lutheran I would say be Lutheran. Be a devout Lutheran, but be kind and generous to those who are not Lutheran. I would say the same to Buddhists, Hindus, Muslims, Jews, and Atheists, etc. I am not saying that Orthodoxy is just one among many equally viable expressions of human religiosity. I am not of that opinion. What I am saying is that the complexity of each human life defies simplistic solutions. And in the West the collapse of traditional communities has left in its wake an epidemic of identity crises. So, in lieu of the identity crises people are facing, I would say ‘be something–almost anything.’ Stick to it. Be devout. But be kind and generous. After all, we have to give God something to work with!

  49. Matthew Avatar
    Matthew

    @Simon:

    I am so glad I just now read your post about Orthodoxy versus other religions. It so resonates with what I am currently thinking. My wife just returned from a visit with a very old friend. This friend knows my wife is a Christian and they talked some about matters of faith. Her friend believes that all one must do is tap into their inner goodness, press into their inner love, summon their better angels, etc. and that when they do … Jesus is there. She believes this is enough to get to the other side (the good side) after death. She doesn´t believe in Jesus Christ in any Orthodox sense and she has problems with the teachings of the Church.

    I nearly fell into the trap of attempting to figure out how to counter all her friend´s ideas about God and reality … but I simply cannot. Life is complex as you say. I cannot force onto this person my view of Jesus Christ and His Church. All I can do is pray for her. She is not completely wrong in her beliefs and assessments, but at the end of the day Jesus Christ as King and Saviour of the world is not on her radar at all.

    Thanks so much Simon.

  50. Michael Bauman Avatar
    Michael Bauman

    Matthew, my experience is that the world tells us that one spiritual practice is enough. So we have churches and philosophies that focus on one aspect and that is enough. The Orthodox Church maintains the whole of what is necessary. Difficult. We have Scripture and preaching, personal spiritual practice within a Sacramental worship that is community focused. A community that is both seen and unseen.
    Each aspect is interrelated with every other aspect.
    It took me quite awhile to understand and realize and participate. Still learning by God’s Grace.

  51. Matthew Avatar
    Matthew

    Thanks so much Michael.

  52. Simon Avatar
    Simon

    Matthew,

    We must have faith that God’s grace circumscribes the lives of each person. If we cannot find some peace in that, then what do we really believe about God? My position regarding the customs and traditions of other religions is really a pendulum swing in response to the dissolution of social norms in society here in America. It it is very much a perspective born of this time and place. However, I do believe that it is consistent with Fr. Thomas Hopko’s 43rd Maxim: Don’t try to convince anyone of anything.

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