Thursday, March 29, 2012

"Grant Me Not to Judge My Brother"

Those familiar with Lenten liturgy will recognize the title as part of the Lenten “Prayer of St. Ephraim the Syrian”, which reads in part, “O Lord and Master of my life...grant me to see my own transgressions, and not to judge my brother, for You are blessed unto ages of ages.” This prayer is not the only part of our tradition which forbids us to judge. The counsel of the Desert Fathers is replete with admonitions not to judge our brethren. And Holy Scripture says the same. St. Paul says, “Let not him who eats disdain him who does not eat, and let not him who does not eat judge him who eats...Who are you to judge the servant of another? (Rom. 14:3f). St. James says the same: “Do not speak against one another, brethren. He who speaks against a brother or judges his brother speaks against the Law and judges the Law...There is only one Lawgiver and Judge” (James 4:11f). Such an apostolic attitude goes back to the Lord Himself. In His sermon on the mount, He said, “Judge not, lest you be judged. In the way you judge you will be judged...Why do you look at the speck in your brother’s eye, but do not notice the log in your own eye? First take the log out of your own eye, and then you will see clearly to take the speck out of your brother’s eye ” (Mt. 7:1f). The teaching is clear: we are not to judge.

But this is not the only part of our tradition which speaks about judging. In other New Testament passages we are commanded to judge. In his letter to the Corinthians, St. Paul said, “I wrote to you not to associate with any so-called brother if he should be immoral, or covetous, or an idolater, or a reviler, or a drunkard or a swindler—do not even eat with such a one. For what have I to do with judging outsiders? Do you not judge those within the church? But those who are outside, God judges. Remove the wicked one from among yourselves” (1 Cor. 6:11f). This command and expectation of judgment is echoed by the Lord as well: “Why do you not even on your own initiative judge what is right?” “Do not judge according to appearance, but judge with righteous judgment” (Lk. 12:57, Jn. 7:24). On the one hand, we are forbidden to judge, and on the other hand, we are commanded to judge. What’s going on?

We are not the first ones to notice this apparent discrepancy in the tradition. St. John Chrysostom, that passionate and careful exegete, also noticed these varying counsels. In his homilies on the Sermon on the Mount, commenting on the Lord’s command “Judge not, lest you be judged”, the preacher of Antioch and Constantinople says the following:

“What then? Ought we not to blame them that sin? Because Paul [in Rom. 14] also says the same thing: ‘Why do you judge your brother? Who are you to judge the servant of another?’...How then does Paul say elsewhere [in 1 Tim. 5], ‘Them that sin rebuke in the presence of all?’ And Christ too says to Peter [in Mt. 18], ‘If your brother sins, go and reprove him in private, and if he refuses to hear, take to yourself another also, and if even then he does not yield, declare it to the church’. And how has Christ set us clergy over so many to reprove, and not only to reprove, but also to punish?”

Perhaps not surprisingly, Chrysostom could not only see the problem, but also its solution. We quote at length once again:

“[In the command “Judge not, lest you be judged”, Christ speaks] to them that are full of innumerable ills, and are trampling upon other men for trifles. And I think that certain Jews too are here hinted at, for while they were bitterly accusing their neighbours for small faults that came to nothing, they were themselves committing deadly sins...And the Corinthians too, Paul did not command absolutely not to judge, but not to judge their own superiors; [they should] not refrain from correcting them that sin... ‘What then!’ you say, ‘if one commit fornication, may I not say that fornication is a bad thing, and correct him that is fornicating?’ Correct him, but not as a foe, nor as an enemy exacting a penalty, but as a physician providing medicine. For Christ did not say, ‘Do not stop him who is sinning’, but rather ‘judge not’—that is, ‘do not be bitter in pronouncing sentence’...Christ does not forbid judging, but commands you first to take out the log from your own eye, and only then set right the doings of the rest of the world”.

It is in this extended bit from one of Chrysostom’s sermons (Homily 23 on Matthew’s Gospel), that we can see the common sense and pastoral care of the Church. The prohibitions against judging were never meant to suspend or blunt our moral faculties. They were never intended to induce moral confusion, wherein we could not recognize sin and brokenness for what they are, nor to induce a muddle-headed cowardice wherein we were reluctant to rebuke sin. Rather, the prohibitions against judging were meant to save us from Pharisaical self-righteousness, from a spiritual blindness which can see all sins except our own. It is fatally easy to arrogate to ourselves the roles of accuser, judge, and jury, and to condemn our brethren for trifles, when we ourselves commit either the same offenses or even greater ones. And let’s be honest: most of the time we judge our brethren, we condemn them for insignificant things—for making the Sign of the Cross “wrong”, for not fasting as we think they should, for indulging the same behaviours that we ourselves also often exhibit. And when we judge them, we do it because it makes us feel good: “O God, I thank You, that I am not as other men are...” Most of the time we judge others, we are dressed in the long robes of the Pharisees. At these times, the word of the Lord is clear: “Judge not, lest you be judged.”

But there are other times when judgment is essential, and when it would be sinful not to do it. St. Paul mentioned these times, as did our Lord. Even the Law knew that there were times when love required open rebuke: “You shall not hate your brother in your heart; you may surely reprove your neighbour, and not incur sin because of him” (Lev. 19:17). This is especially the task of the clergy, who are set as watchmen upon the walls (see Heb. 13:17). To them especially applies the word to the watchmen: “When I say to the wicked, ‘O wicked man, you shall surely die,’ and you do not speak to warn the wicked from his way, that wicked man shall die in his iniquity, but his blood I will require from your hand” (Ezek. 33:8). If we love our brethren, and see them walking headlong into wickedness and disaster, we will surely reprove them. If we do not, they shall die in their iniquity, and some of their guilt will be ours.

Though our Lord’s words about not judging are misused by many today, and made into an absolute, an ability to judge sin and a willingness to reprove it are crucial if the Church is to fulfill its role of spiritually forming her children. This ability to see and condemn sin is called by St. Paul aisthesis, sometimes translated “discernment, perception, insight, moral understanding”. Paul prayed that the love of his dear Philippians would “abound in all knowledge and aisthesis, so that [they] might approve the things which are excellent in order to be blameless for the Day of Christ” (Phil. 1:9-10). Their joy on the Last Day depended upon the health and growth of this moral faculty. Only by discerning which things were excellent and which things were sinful could they be blameless before Christ’s Judgment Seat. It is the same for us as well. The Church is a bulwark and pillar of the truth, a light shining in the midst of a dark and sinful world (1 Tim. 3:15, Phil. 2:15). We are charged by God with knowing what is true righteousness, and of living it in such a way so that all can see its beauty. We fail God, our children and ourselves if we allow the world to blunt our sense of the difference between righteousness and sin, if we become reluctant to see and judge sin for what it is. Our message is always, “Repent, for the Kingdom of heaven is at hand” (Mt. 4:17), and like the apostles we must go out and tell men to repent (Mk. 6:12). For this we need aisthesis, and a willingness to judge—starting with ourselves. The weary world languishes in sin, and desperately needs to be called home.

Monday, March 26, 2012

The Annunciation and the Secularism of Christianity

We are so used to hearing the story of the Annunciation that we sometimes miss things in it. One of the things we miss is how secular is the setting for it. It is an understandable mistake—for us, the whole theme is religious. Any story about the Theotokos is religious; any story containing an angel is religious. When we read of Mary listening to the archangel Gabriel, we regard that moment as the essence of Religion. And by doing so, we miss its whole point.

It is easier to see the story for what it is when we re-insert back it into the flow of its parent narrative, the Gospel of St. Luke. That Gospel opens not with the Annunciation to Mary of Nazareth, but with the Annunciation to Zachariah of Jerusalem. When the archangel comes with the announcement of the impending birth of John the Forerunner, he comes not to his mother, Elizabeth (as might be expected), but to his father, Zachariah. And he comes when Zachariah is in Jerusalem, the holy city celebrated in psalm and prophecy, the city of divine destiny and promise. And not just in the holy city, but also in the holy Temple. And not just in the holy Temple, but actually performing his priestly work of burning incense in the Holy Place. The whole scene radiates with sanctity, history, solemnity, power, glory, and sacred privilege. In other words, with Religion. (Significantly, this annunciation in a religious setting does not end well; Zachariah disbelieves the message and is struck mute for his lack of faith.)

Juxtaposed to this is the annunciation to Mary, and the contrast is intentionally stark. The archangel comes to a woman, not a man (we must be grateful to feminism for the reminder), and to a young girl, not an old man. These details are significant in a culture which valued masculinity and age, and gave decidedly less honour to women and to the young. Also, the angel did not come to Jerusalem to find her (although doubtless as a devout Jewess she would have visited Jerusalem), but to Nazareth. Once again, the contrast is stark: Jerusalem is THE city for Jews, the city which luxuriated under the weight of destiny. Nazareth was nothing. In fact if you look up “Nazareth” in an Old Testament concordance, you discover that it is not there, not once mentioned in the sacred scriptures of the Old Testament. Nazareth lay within the disdained region of Galilee—“Galilee of the Gentiles”, people called it, pagan Galilee. And even other Galileans had not much time for Nazareth. Nathanael of Cana sceptically inquired, “Can anything good come out of Nazareth?” (Jn. 1:46). Ouch. That was Mary’s town. And when the angelic messenger found her there, Luke’s Gospel does not mention that she was doing anything especially pious, like saying her prayers. Some icons show her holding a spindle, that is, doing housework. The context is clearly secular, work-a-day, and ordinary.

Original perceptive readers of Luke’s text would be struck by this contrast. On the one hand, power, glory, history, honour, religion. On the other hand, weakness, obscurity, common life. A secular setting. And it is this secular setting that God chose for the announcement of universal salvation. This young girl, obscure, unnoticed, powerless, poor—was the one chosen out of all the world to fulfill the greatest role and task that history had ever offered, or would ever offer. None of this was accidental. It was a harbinger of things to come.

Fast forward a hundred years to find the Church of God, the people that sprung from Mary’s assent to the angelic annunciation. The Church of that time also looked immensely secular compared with the rest of the world, and compared with Religion. Everyone, pagan and Jew alike, knew what Religion involved: it involved having a sacred space, a temple, a sacred idol, a valid priesthood, an altar and fire for the animal sacrifices. The Christians, on the other hand, seemed to have no Religion at all. When they met, they didn’t meet in a sacred space, but in people’s homes (later on, they would build buildings for worship, but these too were patterned after people’s homes more than they were patterned after temples.) If need be, they could meet in the graveyard, the forest, or anywhere. Also, the Christians had no god, at least not one that anybody could see. They did not gather before an image to offer it homage. They simply met together with no idol in sight. And they didn’t offer sacrifices, killing an animal and offering it up in the fire of sacrifice upon an altar. They simply prayed, and ate a small bit of bread and wine, the ordinary stuff of daily meals. And they had no real priesthood as far as anyone could see. Some of their number presided at their prayers, men who had been themselves set apart by prayer. But that didn’t make them priests. Everyone knew that priests were distinguished by their ancestry, their lineage, their pedigree, and it looked like anyone could be chosen as one of their clergy. As far as every ancient Jew and pagan was concerned, the Christians had no real or proper religion at all.

These Jews and pagans were right. Christianity was not a religion—it is even, as Fr. Alexander Schmemann once said, “The end of religion”. It is not Religion; it is our participation, through our sacramental union with Christ, in the powers of the age to come, a participation that transcends religion with all its earthly categories and boundaries.

It is important to remember this when we enter an Orthodox Church for worship, because there we encounter a lot of stuff—icons, and candles, and vestments. We meet in a building set apart; we clothe our clergy in fancy vestments. All of this might give the unsuspecting the erroneous impression that Orthodoxy was primarily a religion, and that the icons, candles, vestments, and externally beautiful things were what it was all about. But these things do not constitute its essence; they merely adorn its essence. Its essence is the power of Christ in our midst. When Christ comes into our midst, of course we fancy things up and celebrate it. When a royal dignitary comes to visit, we lay out the red carpet. These external things are the red carpet we lay out for Him. But what matters is not the carpet, but the King.

The Annunciation reminds us that Christianity is not a religion, but the life-giving power of God that transcends religion. In its early days, it did not look like a religion. Even now, when it looks rather more religious, it is still not a religion. It is a presence—the presence that the Virgin of Nazareth welcomed into her body when she spoke with the archangel in Nazareth long ago. It is the same presence we welcome into our midst today, whenever we gather together in His Name.

Thursday, March 22, 2012

The Red Book on vestments

This post is the sixth of a series which began here. Previous posts of the series can be found here, here, here, and here.

Of all the chapters in The Red Book, I found the most sympathy with this one. Not because there are fewer distortions in this chapter than in the others. Historical ineptitudes still abound, such as the assertion that “When Constantine moved his court to Byzantium...the official Roman dress was gradually adopted by the priests and deacons. The clergy were now identified by their garb, which matched that of secular officials.” Close, but not quite: in fact, the clergy in the days of the fourth centuries and beyond were not identified by their garb. Like everyone else including the Christian laity, they wore the normal secular clothing of men of their social station, “which matched those of secular officials”. To quote from Gregory Dix’s The Shape of the Liturgy, “sacerdotal functioning in ordinary dress did prevail in Christian usage everywhere...All over christendom ecclesiastical vestments derive from the lay dress of the upper classes in the imperial period”. The clergy wore “the ordinary lay gentleman’s dress of the day” (Shape, p.399, 400). When fashions changed in the world, they did not in the church, so that the vestments in which the clergy now serve Liturgy are still the usual work-a-day clothes of the “lay gentleman” in an earlier period—though admittedly stylized and fancied up quite a bit.

But, we may ask, if St. John Chrysostom served Liturgy in his usual clothes, shouldn’t clergy today do the same? If he appeared in the public streets of Constantinople in ordinary clothing, why do the clergy now where a cassock when in public (or perhaps the “clerical collar”)? For this does constitute a change.

The answers to these two related questions are both rooted in the same freedom, the Christian flexibility to do whatever proves necessary to meet the needs of the time. Certain things in the Church do not change and cannot change, such as its apostolic Faith and its fundamental Tradition. Jesus Christ is the same yesterday, today and forever, and so the Church’s saving Gospel and proclamation of Truth must remain the same forever also. But certain other things can change and must change if the church is to fulfill its divine mandate and meet the changing needs of its people.

Take the catechumenate for example. In the early days of the Church, one did not need such a long period in the catechumenate, for the hostile pagan environment in which the Church lived and in which it suffered persecution was sufficient to “weed out” potential converts who were not serious about serving Christ. After the Peace of Constantine, conversion to Christianity offered certain social advantages, and some people asked for baptism who were not sufficiently serious about the Faith. Thus, in order to both offer the Faith to all and yet still keep the standards high, a more lengthy catechumenate was now required. The Church thus changed an outward detail to preserve unchanged its inner life. Changing situations mean the Church must respond with flexibility.

Clerical garb is one of these changing things. The Red Book objects to clerical garb because it sets the clergy visually apart from the laity. That is precisely why the Church should use clerical garb—to distinguish the clergy from the laity, and to express the glory of the Liturgy in a public setting.

It is just here that it becomes important to recognize that we live within the flow of history, and that there is no such thing as an ecclesiastical time machine. We cannot return to an earlier state of affairs, even if we wanted to. For example, in the second century, there was no set New Testament canon, no universally agreed upon list of New Testament books that corresponds to what we have today. That canon was then still evolving. That was fine for then; history was still flowing. But if one tries to return to the situation of the second century and assert that the New Testament canon is still open and not yet established, one will err grievously. Not yet having a canon is one thing; rejecting the established canon in an attempt to rewind history is quite another. If one did indeed dispense with the set canon and asserted that the question of canon was still an open one, one would not be like the pious Christians of the second century, but would be like the impious ones of the twenty-first century. “Time marches on” as the saying goes, and there is no such thing as a time machine. We cannot step into the same flowing river twice.

It is the same with clerical street garb and liturgical vestments. There was a time when the clergy did not have them, but they did not have them not because they rejected such clothing, but because this development had not yet taken place. But for the clergy now to serve in secular clothing would precisely involve rejecting them, and taking a stand against them in a way that the early church never did. History has moved on, and we still live within its flow. For good or for ill, the Church has chosen to garb its clergy in distinctive clothing. On the street this expresses the difference between clergyman and layman; at the Liturgy it expresses the glory of the Liturgy and honours the Lord’s sacramental Presence. For the Church now to reject such clothing and dispense with them would be to make a statement that clergy are not different than laity, and that the Liturgy is not the sacramental Presence of Christ which we say it is. And it is just these false statements that the Church cannot make.

The street garb the clergy—the cassock or clerical collar—is in fact a uniform, and it is worn for the same reason that all uniforms are worn—to identify its wearer as having a certain task. When one needs a policeman, one looks for the uniform. When one sets apart a man for military duty, one puts him in a uniform. When a physician works in a hospital, he works in a uniform. People in fact want to see these people thus uniformed while they work, and are comforted by it. It is the same with the priest—the uniform sets him visibly apart, so that he is available when needed. The Red Book naturally resists the uniform, because it rejects the concept of clergy. But those who have a clergy will want to have their clergy visible.

The liturgical vestments of the clergy serve a somewhat different purpose, that of adding to the total splendour of the liturgical celebration. In this sense the priest’s vestments resemble the bride’s wedding dress, in that both are splendid to celebrate the occasion. They do not serve a practical purpose, but an aesthetic one. The bride could be married in jeans and a t-shirt. The priest could serve Liturgy in a sweat suit. But the bride wears the wedding dress because its splendour witnesses to the importance of the occasion, and expresses her joy. In the same way, the priest wears vestments because this witnesses to the glory of the Lord and expresses the fact of His sacramental Presence. For the bride and groom to be married in casual clothing would be to make a statement about the casualness with which they regarded their union. For the priest to reject the historic use of vestments and serve Liturgy in a sweat suit would be to make a statement about the absence of any sacramental Presence. The Evangelical Protestant churches are just being consistent when they reject liturgical vestments, for they have already rejected such a sacramental Presence. In the same way, the Orthodox are just being consistent in retaining liturgical vestments, for we maintain the historic belief in the sacramental Presence. Priestly vestments are not “an affront to the spiritual principles that govern the house of God” as the authors of The Red Book allege. Since the vestments became customary centuries ago, they are an expression of those principles—namely, of the role of the clergy within the Church, and the sacramental Presence of Christ within the Church’s Eucharist.

Monday, March 19, 2012

Western Reflections on the Death of an Eastern Pope

On Saturday March 17, Pope Shenouda, the head of the Coptic Orthodox Church in Egypt, died at the age of 88. The Coptic Church in Egypt numbers an estimated ten million Christians, and the Pope (the title was used to describe the bishop of Alexandria before it was used to describe the bishop of Rome) ruled as its chief pastor for forty years. I leave an analysis of his lasting legacy to hands more skilled than mine, hands more experienced in understanding the delicate dance that any Christian leader must do in an Islamic land. For now, I would like to reflect from my home safe in the far west upon something that this eastern Pope had to deal with every day of his long life—that is, how to deal with one’s Islamic neighbours. How should we in North America regard the Muslims with whom we share our countries, our schools and our workplace?

First of all, we should regard him as our neighbour—and not just in the sociological sense, as someone who resides near us, but also in the theological sense, as someone given to us by God to love and serve. The commandment is clear: “Thou shalt love thy neighbour as thyself” (Lev. 19:18, Mk. 12:31). Legalistic minds have striven to minimize this commandment and to find inventive ways of circumventing it. They have asked, “But, after all, who is my neighbour?”, trying to make the definition as narrow as possible, and the list of people on the “Must Love” list as short as possible. When someone asked our Lord that question with that intention, He responded with the parable of the Good Samaritan (see Lk. 10:25-37), and if you read the passage carefully, you will observe that Christ never did quite answer the question. The lawyer asked, “Who is my neighbour?”, and Christ responded with direction about how to be a neighbour (v. 36). The lawyer was looking for a list of duties; Christ responded with a call to find opportunities. If one insisted upon translating Christ’s reply from parable to precept to answer the lawyer’s question, it would be this: your neighbour is the person standing next to you. And for us that includes Muslims.

The primary fact about a Muslim therefore is that God made him, and that Christ died for him. As St. Paul said in the pagan world in which he lived, “God is the Saviour of all men, especially of believers” (1 Tim. 4:10). This divine fact provides our mandate: we must love our Muslim neighbour because God is his loving Saviour. The Muslim might not yet know or acknowledge that, but it remains true nonetheless, and the fact that God loves someone means we must love that person too.

Secondly, in a world that is full of lies, we must rejoice in whatever truth our neighbour has and reaffirm it. Islam gets lots of things right. In a world riddled with polytheism, it proclaims monotheism; in a world darkened by immorality, it upholds standards of morality. Its truth is partial, of course. Everything true in this age is in some sense partial —including our own knowledge of God and our prophecy (see 1 Cor. 13:9). But this dilution and partiality do not negate its value. Even half-truths are useful, if you know which half to take and which half to reject. Something isn’t necessarily wrong because we find it in the Qur’an. Our refusal to accept the Qur’an as divine revelation does not also entail an inability to read it as poetry. And some of the poetry is not bad.

Finally, we must be prepared to tell our Muslim neighbours the truth—that is, the Gospel. (One resource for this task may be found here.) This follows from the commandment to love, for if we love someone we want them to be happy, and anyone’s eternal happiness depends upon truly knowing God. I am not prepared to say that all Muslims are going to Hell. The question of anyone’s eternal destiny, whether Christian, Muslim or secular, is for God to decide, for He alone can see the secrets of men’s hearts. God is quite capable of keeping score, and does not need help from us. Our task is more modest—simply to speak the truth as we understand and experience it—in other words, to act as a witness, in Greek, a martys. If one witnesses in certain parts of the world (Egypt may be one), one may find oneself a martys or martyr in more ways than one. That is all in God’s hands. Our task remains constant. We must tell our Muslim friends that there is indeed but one God, the Father almighty, maker of heaven and earth. And this Father has always lived and reigned with His eternal Son and His eternal Spirit. God now calls us all to become His adopted children through baptism and discipleship to Jesus, and offers us forgiveness of sins and eternal life when we live as part of His Church. Proclaiming this humbly and plainly is not anti-ecumenical triumphalism; it is faithfulness to God and love to our neighbour. Evangelism, as someone once said, is simply one hungry beggar telling another hungry beggar where to get bread. Our Muslim neighbour is as hungry as we would be without Christ. Love for him demands that we share with him the good news of where to get the bread.

Tuesday, March 13, 2012

The Red Book on pastors

            This post is the fifth of a series which began here.  After denouncing the use of church buildings, a set order of church service, and The Sermon, The Red Book next sets its sights on The Pastor, denounced as an “obstacle to every-member functioning”.  We recall that by “every-member functioning” the authors refer to the imagined first century church practice of everyone chiming in whenever they wished over a shared meal, which practice they hold up as the sine qua non of true Christian worship.  Not surprisingly, therefore, the one presiding over the gathering as its main liturgical voice and teacher comes in for a lot of flak.  The authors of The Red Book assert that having a clergy “has done untold harm to the body of Christ...the pastoral office has transformed us into stones that do not has stolen your right to function as a full member of Christ’s body”.  Accordingly, one lengthy chapter does not suffice to contain all that Valentinus and Marcion find wrong with the concept of a Pastor; other chapters must be added denouncing the concept of pastoral clothing or vestments, the pastor’s role in music (more applicable to the Protestant Evangelical context in which the authors write than to Orthodoxy), and the concept of clerical salary.  With these chapters on The Pastor, we have clearly come to the heart of the book, and the main objection that Valentinus and Marcion have with the present condition of all the churches.
            Some of what these authors say is valuable and true:  the early church, for example, local churches were not each headed by a single pastor, but a plurality of presbyters:  “there is no biblical support,” they write, “for the practice of sola pastora (single pastor).”  The Protestant concept of “the Minister” as the sole functionary is indeed foreign to the earthly church (and to historic Orthodoxy).  But such valid insights are outnumbered and overwhelmed by a landslide of nonsense and distortion.  Chief among these distortions is their assertion that there were no clergy in the first century church.
But consider the following.  When St. Paul wrote this epistle to the Ephesians, he referred to a number of gifts which Christ gave to His church—such ministries as “apostle, prophet, evangelist, shepherd and teacher” (see Eph. 4:11).  Note that “shepherd and teacher” are grouped together, since their functions more often than not coalesced into one.  This witnesses to the presence of shepherds/ pastors in the church as an identifiable office, much like that of teacher (see Acts 13:1).  Paul elsewhere speaks of “presbyters” or “bishops” as the ones ruling the churches, and as teaching (see Phil. 1:1, 1 Tim. 3:1f, 5:17).  Thus, for Paul, the local leaders are referred to by the titles “bishop”, “presbyter”, and “shepherd” more or less interchangeably.  Note that these titles all describe the same person.  Note too that, like the titles apostle, prophet, and evangelist, these titles of shepherd, bishop, and presbyter describe not simply a function, but a functionary—i.e. an actual office-holder.       
The authors of The Red Book do their best to evade this truth.  They describe the titles of bishop and presbyter as meaning “little more than inspectors, older men”.  The term “shepherd” referred to by St. Paul in Eph. 4:11 “does not envision a pastoral office, but merely one of many functions in the church.  Shepherds are those who naturally provide nurture and care for God’s sheep”.  For Valentinus and Marcion, “the vocabulary of the New Testament leadership allows no pyramidal structures.  It is rather a language of horizontal relationships that includes exemplary action”.  In this reconstruction of the first century, there were no acknowledged leaders, no men who “ruled” (1 Tim. 5:17), no men who kept watch over the souls of their brethren and to whom these brethren should submit (Heb. 13:17), no men to whose charge the Chief Shepherd allotted other Christians (1 Pt. 5:3-4).  No; for Valentinus and Marcion, the pristine first century church only had Bob and his friends, men who had no special authority or accountability, but who pitched in to “naturally provide nurture and care” (whatever that might mean). 
In our authors’ imaginative reconstruction of history, this clergy-less church all began to change with Ignatius of Antioch, the bishop of Antioch who was martyred in about 107 A.D. and who left the church the legacy of the letters he wrote on his way to martyrdom in Rome.  “He was the first figure in church history,” according to our authors, “to take a step down the slippery slope toward a single leader in the church.  We can trace the origin of the contemporary pastor and church hierarchy to him”.  Serious students of church history know that the monepiscopacy is something too basic, too early, and too universal to be attributed to any single individual.  But even apart from this, it is apparent that Ignatius refers to the distinction between the local bishop who runs the church and the presbyters who assist him as an already established reality.  Ignatius was not innovating; he was calling the churches to whom he was writing to cling the more tenaciously to this bit of tradition.  The distinction of terminology which reserved the title of “bishop” to the head presbyter might not have been au current in the middle of the first century, but the reality was there all the same.  The first century knew a plurality of presbyters, but only one of these presbyters could preside, and it was this president, this head of the presbyteral collegium, for whom the title “bishop” was eventually reserved.  The point is that the reality of a single liturgical head of the local church could not have begun with Ignatius.  It was there in the first century from the very beginning, made inevitable by the fact that someone had to preside at the Eucharistic assembly and say the Anaphora.
After Ignatius, as far as The Red Book is concerned, it was all down-hill.  Though Jesus “obliterated...the hierarchical form of leadership...with the death of the apostles and the men they trained, things began to change”.  That is, despite our Lord’s promise that the Holy Spirit would guide the Church into all truth (Jn. 16:13), pretty much everything fell apart as soon as the apostles and their first converts died.  The Red Book’s quarrel, therefore, is not just with the concept of a pastor.  Its quarrel is with the entire history of the church, and with everything that happened in it since the late first century.  Like all cults, there is the assumption of wide-spread apostasy, as if their Creed, instead of reading, “I believe in one, holy, catholic and apostolic church”, read “I disbelieve in everything done by the one, holy, catholic and apostolic church.”  Belief that the post-apostolic church was apostate is part of their church’s doctrinal foundation.  And this is rejection of history is a constant in such sects; they only differ about the timing of the apostasy.  Did everything fall apart under Constantine, or earlier?  The Red Book asserts that it fell apart “with the death of the apostles and the men they trained”—that is, about 100 A.D.  (I note that this is well before the settling of the New Testament canon of Scripture.)
Christ did not, in fact, “obliterate the hierarchical form of leadership”.  What He did was more nuanced:  while insisting upon a radical equality of all of His disciples (“you are all brothers”; Mt. 23:8), He nonetheless gave special authority to some of them (namely, the Twelve) that He did not give to others.  To the Twelve He said, “whoever receives you, receives Me” (Mt. 10:40), and to them He gave the authority to bind and loose, to forgive sins (Mt. 16:19, 18:18, Jn. 20:23).  As someone once quipped, “The church began with a clergy”—or at least with persons who possessed special authority.  This apostolic authority was transmitted by the apostles to the leaders in the churches they founded, so that those leaders might rule the churches in the absence of the apostles.  That is why presbyters were appointed when the churches were first set up (e.g. Acts 14:23), or immediately afterward (e.g. Titus 1:5).
We see this transmitted authority, this hierarchical leadership, throughout the New Testament:  St. Paul talks about presbyters ruling (1 Tim. 5:17), about bishops caring for the church of God as a father manages his own family (1 Tim. 3:4-5).  The writer of the Epistle to the Hebrews writes of leaders who keep watch over the souls of others, and tells those under them to submit to them (Heb. 13:17).   St. Peter exhorts the presbyters who exercised oversight over those allotted to their charge to do so humbly, according to God (1 Pt. 5:1-3).  Everywhere in the New Testament epistles we find shepherds, men with authority who ruled and protected the sheep.  It is true that the pastoral office evolved and developed as time went on.  After Constantine, the local leaders had to take on functions which they did not have before, and the social importance of bishops grew along with it.  But from the Day of Pentecost onward, some men had more authority than others in the Church.  From the Day of Pentecost onward, there was a clergy.
The heated rhetoric of The Red Book notwithstanding, having an authoritative leadership does not, in fact, transform the laity from living stones into “stones that cannot breathe”.  Whatever may happen in Protestant churches, the historic praxis of the Orthodox Church still allows plenty of scope for lay participation.  This can be seen by spending half an hour at the Divine Liturgy:  the first one to say anything is not the presbyter, but the deacon:  “It is time for the Lord to act,” he says, signalling to the celebrant that he should now chant the opening doxology.  Then the celebrant chants, “Blessed is the Kingdom”, and this is followed by a lengthy intercession, as the deacon and people, led by the choir, together sing the Great Litany.  Next come the antiphons, interspersed again by the prayers of the deacon, choir and people.  Then the subdeacons, deacon, and priest make a procession (the so-called “Little Entrance”), as the choir and people sing the final antiphon.  In some churches, the people participate in this procession by venerating the Gospel as it passes them by.  Next come the lessons, chanted by a Reader, with some laity holding candles (not excluding little children) as the Gospel lesson is chanted.  Throughout the service one finds the constant interplay of priest, deacon, subdeacon, reader, choir and people, each making their own differing contributions.  All are involved in singing; all are involved in lighting candles and venerating icons.  All the faithful come forward to receive the Body and Blood of Christ.  Each has his or her own role to play, his or her own part in the total offering of the Divine Liturgy.  The fact that the presbyter gives the sermon, and says the prayers and anaphora does not crowd out “every-member functioning”.  The presbyter has but one part among the total, and all the people participate, adding their voice to the liturgical sacrifice of praise.  Canonically, if the people are not present to add that voice, the presbyter cannot serve the Liturgy.  Orthodoxy knows nothing of “private Masses”; if no one else shows up on Sunday morning, the clergyman simply goes home.
More than this, the existence of a clergy ensures that the rest of the laity has the opportunity to make their liturgical contributions.  Whatever lip-service the authors of The Red Book pay to the glory of house church worship, the reality is that in the absence of clearly established leaders, someone will dominate in those house churches—often the person with the most amount of enthusiasm and ego, and the least amount of real knowledge and training.  Hierarchy is in fact the only thing which saves the church from the uneducated tyranny of the dominating layman.  In traditional liturgical worship, the contribution of all is guaranteed, because the Liturgy is set up in such a way that priest, deacon, subdeacon, reader, choir, and people all have their bits to add, and it is the responsibility of the clergyman presiding to make sure that everyone does their appointed bit.  The task of the pastor is to lead the others in their worship, not to do it for them.  The shepherd exists only for the sheep.  And history has proven that where no shepherds exist, the sheep soon cease to exist also.  For, as St. Paul reminded the shepherds and presbyters of Ephesus when he left them (Acts 20:17, 28-29), the wolves are not slow to come, and they do not spare the flock.

Tuesday, March 6, 2012

The Gospel According to "Firefly"

          For a preacher who loves to mine contemporary culture (that ephemeral thing) for theological nuggets, the late TV series “Firefly” represents a rare gift.  Each of the all-too-brief fifteen episodes and the movie “Serenity” based upon it offer a number of lines in which the perceptive theologian can find Christian truth.  (You just need to have your ears wide open, and your brown coat on.)  Here I would like to recall two of them, both of them much needed Firefly insights for believers who strive to remain faithful to Jesus Christ in the midst of an increasingly secular world.  (You can read another Firefly nugget in the Sounding blog here.)
            The first comes from a conversation (make that “interrogation”), in which Malcolm Reynolds, the captain of the ship “Firefly”, is asked by an Alliance Commander (i.e. The Bad Guy) about the name of his ship.  Prior to buying and captaining the Firefly ship, Mal had fought the Alliance on the side of the rebels.  The Alliance was victorious, and it crushed the rebels (whose uniform consisted of brown coats), with the decisive battle occurring in Serenity Valley.  Mal named his ship “Serenity” after that battle, arousing the suspicion of the interrogating Alliance Commander.  “Seems odd you’d name your ship after a battle you were on the wrong side of”, he opined.  Mal’s reply:  “May have been the losing side. Still not convinced it was the wrong one.”
            In this reply of quiet defiance, we hear the voice of the martyrs.  Whether it be in the early centuries of the pagan Roman Empire, or in the twentieth century of Communist Russia, or in Islamic lands ruled by a ruthless sharia law, Christians have routinely found themselves in battles the world thought they were on the wrong side of.  For the world, be it pagan, Communist, Islamic, or militantly secular, what matters is who wins.  Wealth, popularity, and even survival depend upon being on the winning side, and the world has always thought the Christians were fools for fighting what everyone knew would be a losing battle.  The world’s cry is ever, “Who is like the Beast, and who is able to wage war with it?” (Rev. 13:4)  Mal and the martyrs know differently.  In this age, we may be on the losing side.  We are not convinced it is the wrong one.  And when the Lord Jesus returns in glory, the true winners and losers will at last be revealed.  In the meanwhile, “Here is the perseverance and the faith of the saints” (Rev. 13:10).
            The second Firefly theological nugget comes at the end of the movie “Serenity”, when Mal referred to his ship.  In the midst of a hostile world, still ruled by the Alliance, this ship was not just a ship.  It was home to Mal and the crew which had become his second family; it was their freedom, their hope for physical survival, for their spiritual survival—the only way they could hold out with integrity against the all-but-invincible and universal Alliance.  Mal tells his new pilot that she has to love the ship.  Loving the ship is matter of life and death.  As Mal said, “Love keeps her in the air when she oughtta fall down”.
            We Christians are also surrounded by an all-but-invincible and universal power—the World, which opposes us and would seduce our hearts away from God.  The Scriptures are quite clear:  “The whole world lies in the power of the Evil One” (1 Jn. 5:19).  We survive because we live in a ship—the Church of God, adrift upon the sea of the world, floating through the black.  The Church is not just an organization.  It is our home, our freedom, our hope for spiritual survival.  And if we are to survive, we must love the Church, cling to her, defend her, serve our fellow crew, the brothers and sisters within her, and never leave her.  Love like this does the impossible, and helps us survive in this hostile world.  As St. Paul said, love never fails (1 Cor. 13:8).  Love keeps us in the air when we oughtta fall down.

Thursday, March 1, 2012

The Red Book on sermons

            This post is the fourth in a series.  Previous posts can be viewed here, here, and here.        
In this post I examine the chapter of The Red Book which speaks about sermons.  At first sight it might seem odd that something as classically Protestant as The Sermon draws so much ire from Valentinus and Marcion, but as we have already seen, pretty much everything classically Christian draws their ire.  Even so, I was a bit unprepared for how much blame is heaped on The Sermon.  It is described in the chapter title as “Protestantism’s Most Sacred Cow” and then declared to be “a polluted stream”, arriving “around the third century [when] a vacuum was created when mutual ministry faded from the body of Christ”.  It is likened to the craft of pagan rhetoricians and sophists—“borrowed from the pagan pool of Greek culture!” [exclamation mark original].  Sermonizing “harms the church” in five ways:  it “makes the preacher the virtuoso performer of regular church gathering”; it “often stalemates spiritual growth”; it “preserves the unbiblical clergy mentality”; it “de-skills” the people of God, rather than equipping them; and it “is often impractical”.  What is needed is “a restoration of the biblical practice of mutual exhortation and mutual ministry”. 
            Once again we see the imagined praxis of the first century church of the Pauline epistles upheld and promoted as the only acceptable way of doing things, with every other later development denounced, usually with a maximum of historical ignorance regarding what actually happened.  (Dating the arrival of the sermon to the third century is a breath-taking example of such ignorance:  recall from my previous post how St. Justin Martyr in about 150 A.D. described the Sunday morning Eucharist as containing a sermon— in Justin’s description:  “the memoirs of the apostles or the writings of the prophets are read as long as time permits.  Then, when the reader has ceased, the president verbally instructs and exhorts to the imitation of these good things”—i.e. he gives The Sermon.)  Seemingly, the only Bible verse which really matters to the authors of The Red Book is 1 Cor. 14:26, “When you come together, each one has as psalm, has a teaching, has a revelation, has a tongue, has an interpretation”.  From this description of the Eucharistic agape meal in Corinth (written before the separation of the Eucharist from the agape later that century by the apostles), Valentinus and Marcion conclude that the only acceptable form of worship today is one where everyone gathers for a meal and puts in their liturgical two bits whenever they like, including a bit of informal teaching.  This is styled “mutual exhortation and mutual ministry”—presumably because the people at the meal are talking to one another.  By using this verse as the interpretive key and the prism through which everything else is viewed, Valentinus and Marcion feel justified in rejecting all future liturgical development. 
            Yet even here their reconstruction of first century praxis is more imagined than real.  I point out two components of that praxis.
            First, the existence of authoritative clergy—denounced by Valentinus and Marcion as “the unbiblical clergy mentality”—is attested throughout the New Testament.  The Jerusalem church had elders (Greek presbuteros), and these were clearly men in authority (see Acts 15:2,22).  The very term “elder”, answering to the Hebrew zeqanim, would convey this authority, for the “elders” in Israel were men who ruled (see Ex. 3:18, 12:21, Deut. 19:12, Ruth 4:2).  Also, in his missionary journeys, although Paul did not always have time to find men among his new converts who possessed the seniority and maturity needed for the task of leadership and to set them into office, finding them and setting them into office was  a priority.  Sometimes therefore Paul appointed such presbyters during his missionary journeys (Acts 14:23); sometimes he left that task to others such as Titus, who was told to appoint such presbyters with all haste (see Titus 1:5).  In all cases, a functioning presbyterate was an essential part of the local church.  Their presence is assumed, I would argue, in all the epistles, and explicitly mentioned in the epistle to the Philippians (Phil. 1:1).  That they existed in all the churches can be seen by Paul’s instructions about selecting them in 1 Tim. 3.  A large part of their function was teaching (see 1 Tim. 5:17-18), and this is why the office of “teacher” and presbyter (or “shepherd”) is connected so closely in Eph. 4:11, where Paul speaks of “shepherds and teachers” as pretty much the same office.  And even before Paul began his missionary journeys, his church in Antioch had functioning teachers (Acts 13:1).  The first century church was not the leader-less liturgical free-for-all imagined by The Red Book.
            Secondly, (and not surprisingly in a church which had such teachers), teaching from these teachers was an essential part of the weekly synaxis.  Even in 1 Cor. 14:26 “a teaching” (Greek didache) is mentioned, and given Paul’s earlier reference to “teachers” in 1 Cor. 12:28, it unlikely that this “teaching” was an informal opinion offered by Bob over the dessert course of the meal.  Thus even in Pauline Corinth the teachers did their teaching.  We can see the importance of this teaching by examining the New Testament:  James refers to it as “the implanted Word which is able to save your souls” (Jas. 1:21); Peter refers to it as “the pure milk of the Word” (or “pure spiritual milk”—Greek to logikon adolon gala, notoriously difficult to capture in English), and urges his readers to “long” for it, “so that they may grow up into salvation” (1 Pt. 2:2).  The writer of The Epistle to the Hebrews commands his readers to “remember your leaders, those who spoke to you the Word of God” (Heb. 13:7).  Paul, who wrote often of teachers, seems to divide his Galatian church readers into two groups:  “the one who is taught the Word” and “him who teaches” (Gal. 6:6), and the former is told to “share all good things” with the latter—i.e. to pay them.  Clearly, the churches of the New Testament knew a presbyteral, pastoral ministry of teaching and preaching (1 Tim. 5:17), and this teaching was valued as means of “growing up into salvation”.  This Word of teaching was “able to save your souls”.  It is therefore not surprising to find that in the mid-second century, according to St. Justin, after the readings from the Scriptures from the Old and New Testaments, the presbyter presiding at the Eucharist “verbally instructs and exhorts to the imitation of those good things”.  The Sermon was now a normal part of the Eucharist.
            In classical and authentic Orthodoxy, the Sermon retains this important place in the Eucharist.  In fact, in the service for the ordination of a bishop, the bishop is ordained after the Trisagion and before the Sermon so that the newly-ordained bishop can preach the sermon, since preaching and “righting defining the Word of Truth” is his central function.  (It is the same with the ordination of priests and deacons:  the priest, for example, is ordained before the Anaphora so that he can take his share in offering the Anaphora along with the presiding bishop.)  Sadly, sometimes the Sermon or Homily is omitted from its classical place after the Scripture readings, and tacked on to the end of the Liturgy like an after-thought.  Whatever the pastoral reasons supporting this transfer of the Sermon to the end, it has the unfortunate effect of separating it from the Liturgy itself, and giving the false impression that it is an optional frill, when in fact it is an essential component.  A Liturgy without an Epistle or Gospel would feel lacking, as would a Liturgy without the Creed.  A Liturgy without a Sermon is similarly deficient—as St. John Chrysostom, the golden-mouthed preacher of Antioch and Constantinople, would be the first one to admit. 
            Here we must freely confess that too often we Orthodox presbyters and teachers of today have let down our end rather badly, so that when one thinks of Orthodoxy one does not instantly think of inspired and fervent preaching.  We do many things well, but homiletics is not known to be one of them.  This should be remedied, especially since we live in the midst of a pluralistic and often hostile secular society.  The days when one could assume most people knew the Truth are long gone.  Most people in the secular West know as much about real Christianity as I do about Zoroastrianism (which isn’t much), and this is best remedied by teaching and preaching.  The Sermon is not “a polluted stream”, as the authors of The Red Book assert.  It is a river of living water, flowing out from the Church to give life to a thirsty world.