Here was the Gospel reading in our Orthodox parish yesterday. Matthew 11:2-15:
And when John had heard in prison about the works of Christ, he sent two of his disciples and said to Him, “Are You the Coming One, or do we look for another?”
Jesus answered and said to them, “Go and tell John the things which you hear and see: The blind see and the lame walk; the lepers are cleansed and the deaf hear; the dead are raised up and the poor have the gospel preached to them. And blessed is he who is not offended because of Me.”
As they departed, Jesus began to say to the multitudes concerning John: “What did you go out into the wilderness to see? A reed shaken by the wind? But what did you go out to see? A man clothed in soft garments? Indeed, those who wear soft clothing are in kings’ houses. But what did you go out to see? A prophet? Yes, I say to you, and more than a prophet. For this is he of whom it is written:
‘Behold, I send My messenger before Your face, Who will prepare Your way before You.’
“Assuredly, I say to you, among those born of women there has not risen one greater than John the Baptist; but he who is least in the kingdom of heaven is greater than he. And from the days of John the Baptist until now the kingdom of heaven suffers violence, and the violent take it by force. For all the prophets and the law prophesied until John. And if you are willing to receive it, he is Elijah who is to come. He who has ears to hear, let him hear!
Our priest repeated Jesus’s words, “What did you go out into the wilderness to see? A read shaken by the wind?” He added, “If that’s not an order to man up, I don’t know what is.” Here are the notes I wrote down after church about the main points of his sermon on this passage:
What did you expect when you come to church? Comfort? No — it’s the Cross. We come to say, “I am sick, I want to be healed.” We don’t come for words that tickle our ears. We come to be healed. We come to say, “You are God, I am not, please help me.” The Lenten struggle is hard for all of us, but don’t complain, don’t be distracted, and don’t give in to self-pity. Gird your loins for battle! Break the stone in your chest. Follow me through our struggle together, as I follow Christ.
One thing I love about Orthodox Christianity, at least as it is preached and celebrated at our little mission parish, is how it really is the anti-MTD. It’s radical. John the Baptist was a crazy man who lived in the desert and wore camel skins and ate honey and locusts — and he was the greatest prophet of God that ever lived. This is an incredibly strange story! I’ve always been puzzled by Christ’s line, “The kingdom of heaven suffers violence, and the violent take it by force,” and I was comforted to see that there’s not a settled agreement on what it means. The interpretation that makes the most sense to me is one that the Fathers had: that if you really want to be part of the kingdom of heaven, you have to take it by force — that is, be radical. The violence we are called to practice is against ourselves, in the sense of repentance. St. John of Kronstadt wrote:
Man! the Creator’s omnipotence, wisdom, and mercy, which were poured out upon the visible and invisible world, are ready to be bestowed, in all their infinity, upon you also, if you endeavour to be a true child of the Heavenly Father, if you fulfil His commandments to love God and your neighbour. Give yourself up, then, untiringly, and with all your might, to good works and deeds.
Do not only do your work when you wish to, but do it especially then, when you do not wish to. Understand that this applies to every ordinary worldly matter, as likewise, and especially, to the work of the salvation of your soul — to prayer, to reading God’s word and other salutary books, to attending Divine service, to doing good works, whatever they may be, to preaching God’s word. Do not obey the slothful, deceitful, and most sinful flesh; it is eternally ready to rest and lead us into everlasting destruction through temporal tranquillity and enjoyment. “In the sweat of thy face,” it is said, ” shalt thou eat bread.” O miserable soul, “carefully cultivate the talent granted unto thee,” sings the Church. “The kingdom of heaven suffereth violence, and the violent take it by force,” says our Lord and Saviour.
Our pastor used the Gospel reading today to remind us that if Lent is hard — if the fasting, the extra church services, the additional prayers, the almsgiving — well, it’s supposed to be hard. It’s supposed to crack the stone that is our heart, so that the love of God can flow in and soften it, and flow back out again in service to others.
A reader sent me another great recent sermon by the Rev. Nadia Bolz-Weber, who as a liberal Lutheran is theologically very, very different from us Orthodox, but is radical, in her way. And so is Charles Featherstone, this blog’s reader, who is also a Lutheran; he’s finished seminary, and is awaiting a call to a parish. In answering my recent post wondering why someone who didn’t believe in God would go to seminary, he explains that mainstream Christianity has lost touch with the radical nature of the Biblical story. Excerpt:
The second has to do with the professionalization of the clergy beginning in the late 19th century. Professionals are people who are have specialized education or training, apply some amount of scientific rigor to the work they do, and are somewhat (at least outwardly) emotionally detached from their work. Professionalism is the ethos by which mass industrialized civilization is administered. The clergy, in this arrangement, became responsible for managing the souls and morals of society, and were somewhere between social workers and teachers as members of a “helping profession.” The whole point of this management was to make society run better, more smoothly.
Well, this arrangement has broken down — who need clergy anymore to manage souls and morals? But we’re still expected to be members of the “helping professions,” only now we’re all somewhere between social workers and community organizers. And who needs God to organize people? Or to agitate for “social justice”?
At the root of this is the loss of the biblical story as our story, as the story of God’s called and redeemed people. The Bible usually gets lost in systematic theology, and that was as true of the Protestant systematizers in the 17th century as it was of the Aquinas and the Catholic systematizers of the 12th and 13th centuries. Faith gets reduced to a series of abstract propositions. But God is not an abstraction. Israel encountered a very real God, a God who yanked them out of Egypt in terror and mass death, a God who appeared in cloud and fire at Sinai, a God who redeemed God’s people time and again in the midst of their suffering. The disciples met a very real God, a God present in the person of Jesus of Nazareth who called fishermen and tax collectors “follow me” and who knew, in that moment, God had reached into their lives and nothing about those lives would be the same again.
I am a biblical theologian. I have little use for systematic theology, for scholastic theology, for the edifice of natural law (I find most of it unbiblical anyway), for the impressive but incredibly lifeless cathedral that is the intellectual heritage of the church. It’s one thing for Christians to talk to each other in terms of philosophy — whether that philosophy is Aristotle or Immanuel Kant — but to think we have anything to say to the world that it doesn’t already know using that language is plain foolishness.
We’re wasting our time and our energy doing anything but telling the story of God’s love for God’s people Israel, especially as made known to us in the person — in the life, death and resurrection — of Jesus Christ.
Now, I’m sure I disagree with Charles on the importance of right doctrine, but I think we essentially agree. The stories in the Bible are radical. If you want a piece of heaven, it’s a free gift, but you’ve got to fight for it. That is, you’ve got to fight everything in yourself that separates you from it. You’ve got to believe that the crazy prophet living in the bush eating bugs proclaims the Way.
Another reader, a Canadian pastor, sent me this story in response to the seminarians/pastors who don’t believe in God post. It’s an interview with two clergywomen in the United Church, the largest Protestant church in Canada, and a very liberal mainline Protestant one. One, Connie denBok, believes in God; the other, Gretta Vosper, is an atheist. Excerpt:
Observer: Is the United Church big enough and flexible enough to employ all sorts of ministers, even those who no longer accept what the church professes to believe?
denBok: If we had a clear doctrinal statement or a clear mission, or if we had a clear anything that we hold in common — other than the pension plan — it would be easier to answer that question. As it is now, we are, in my opinion, a kind of anarchistic loose alliance of individuals and congregations, held together by a common property owner, by a common love for nobody telling us exactly what we should do. We have that in common.
Vosper: Yes, that’s right. One of the things the United Church failed to do, as many other mainline denominations failed to do as they moved away from a salvationist theology, was to name why we come together. We got close to having those important conversations in the 1960s, but we veered away because we were afraid it was going to tear the fabric apart, and we didn’t want to deal with that.
denBok: Ours is a branch of the church family that seems to have lost its purpose and sense of direction. Our family tree looks like it will become extinct unless we find a way to connect with God and the Christian scriptures.
I looked up demographic trends within the United Church. Barring some sort of miracle, within a decade, it will cease to exist.
We conservative Christians have a habit of snickering at the liberal churches, all of whom claim to be on the cutting edge of Relevance, but who are in worse shape than we are. The day has come, though, when no one can take anything for granted. There is a lesson in all these stories for all us Christians. All the churches are going through a purgation now, in late modernity, and will in the years and decades to come. As a Catholic friend said to me the other day, the knife is going to cut very clean and deep, and nobody knows how far it will go before it hits bone.
UPDATE: From Rabbi Heschel’s book, The Prophets:
To a person endowed with prophetic sight, everyone else appears blind; to a person whose ear perceives God’s voice, everyone else appears deaf. No one is just; no knowing is strong enough, no trust complete enough. The prophet hates the approximate, he shuns the middle of the road. Man must live on the summit to avoid the abyss. There is nothing to hold to except God. Carried away by the challenge, the demand to straighten out man’s ways, the prophet is strange, one-sided, an unbearable extremist.
Others may suffer from the terror of cosmic aloneness, the prophet is overwhelmed by the grandeur of divine presence. He is incapable of isolating the world. There is an interaction between man and God which to disregard is an act of insolence. Isolation is a fairy tale.
Where an idea is the father of faith, faith must conform to the ideas of the given system. In the Bible the realness of God came first, and the task was how to live in a way compatible with His presence. Man’s coexistence with God determines the course of history.
The prophet disdains those for whom God’s presence is comfort and security; to him it is a challenge, an incessant demand. God is compassion, not compromise; justice, though not inclemency. The prophet’s prediction can always be proved wrong by a change in man’s conduct, but never the certainty that God is full of compassion.
The prophet’s word is a scream in the night. While the world is at ease and asleep, the prophet feels the blast from heaven.