Monday, 28 July 2014

"In search of divine light"

I want to commend the following track to you from Divna's brilliant new album "In search of divine light" entitled: "Blessed is the Man" (Blazhen Muzh). It is a truly beautiful piece of music, wonderfully sung and very moving and deeply spiritual. The singers don't just sing it they worship.

For Visitors to Orthodox Worship Services

For fellow seekers here is a useful introduction to Orthodox Services published by St. John the Evangelist Orthodox Church in Tempe, Arizona (click here). It's an interesting insight into the why, how and what of your average Orthodox Service

For Visitors to Orthodox Services
Visiting an Orthodox Church, for many people, is a new and exciting experience. For those who are unfamiliar with the Orthodox Christian faith it may sometimes be difficult to understand what is happening, and we are sensitive to that. Below are a few questions you may have if you are unfamiliar with our faith. If you have additional questions during your visit, please speak to an usher

Are non-Orthodox visitors welcome?
Yes! The Church of Jesus Christ is a house of prayer for all people, and we welcome anyone who is interested in worshipping the Holy Trinity with us. Most of our congregation was not born into the Orthodox Church and faith. We began like many of you - with a desire to find out what the real "early Church" was, and what it believed and practised. Many of us came from Evangelical, Reformed, Anglican, Charismatic, Roman Catholic and non-denominational Christian backgrounds. Others have come from eastern religions or through new age interests. You will find a wide diversity of faith traditions, races, age groups and ethnic groups represented at our parish.

So don’t be afraid to ask questions about what we do and why (at the appropriate time, of course!)! We offer books and pamphlets that can help answer a variety of questions. Subjects include Christian church history, theology, catechism, Orthodox spirituality, inspiration, prayer, the lives of the Saints, and stories about others who have journeyed to the Orthodox Faith.

You enter the church through the narthex, where you will find pamphlets and printed service texts of the Divine Liturgy available on the table along the wall. As you enter the church nave, the sacred space where the congregation worships, feel free to find a place anywhere. Our normal Sunday service is the Divine Liturgy of Saint John Chrysostom. You may follow the service text, or, if you prefer, simply close your eyes and enter into the Church’s beautiful worship of God.

Following the Sunday Divine Liturgy, you are invited to join us for our “agape meal” which is a good time to get to know our parish members.

What is Orthodox worship like?
Unlike any other Christian church you will visit! We believe that when we pray in Church, we are mysteriously entering into the never-ending worship that is happening in heaven. We join our voices to those of the angels, the saints, and all Orthodox Christians everywhere. We are spiritually taken into Heaven, into the very throne room of God.

Our worship engages all five senses. There are things to see, hear, touch, smell, and taste. The services are mostly sung or chanted, and consist largely of Biblical quotes and references, along with elements that have been present since the very early days of the Christian Church.

What if I get lost?
The service books are helpful, but only up to a point. Orthodox divine services are assembled from different resources according to the Church calendar and ancient traditions; service books cannot fully accommodate this reality. For your first few visits, you may consider simply listening and watching the service and not worrying about following along. Do your best to take it all in. When you have a feel for the services, the books will be more helpful.

How long are the services?
Great Vespers (Evening prayers) on Saturday nights at 6:00 pm. are usually 45 minutes in length. Most Saturdays Great Vespers is followed by Matins (Morning prayers) at 6:45 pm., which when combined are referred to as ‘Vigil’, ending about 8:00 pm. Feel free to stay as long as you wish, and leave when you must. Some folks attend until after the Gospel reading when they are not able to attend the entire Vigil. Divine Liturgy (Sunday – 9:00 am.) runs about ninety minutes. We think that when you have participated in an Orthodox service you will feel like – as one visitor put it – “you have truly worshipped the living God!”

Is there a dress code?
The general rule for men and women is to dress appropriately, modestly and respectfully, as before the living God. Visitors wear everything from casual clothes to suits, long dresses to skirts, casual shirts to shirts with ties. We ask, however, that you not wear shorts, mini-skirts, tank tops, low-cut or strapless dresses (unless covered by a sweater, etc.). You will see some Orthodox women wearing head coverings, but this is not required. Men are asked not to wear head coverings (baseball caps, etc.) in the nave.

Is childcare provided?
Each parent is responsible to take care of their child. We encourage children to be present in Church for the services. This participation is part of a child’s spiritual formation. Children can be restless, and as long as they move around quietly with you it is no problem. However, if your baby or child gets fussy, talkative, or has a melt-down, please take him or her out of the nave until he or she is ready to return quietly.

Standing or sitting?
The traditional posture for prayer and worship in the Orthodox Church is to stand, as before the King of the universe! In the Orthodox “old countries” there are typically no pews in the churches. When you visit us you will find pews, so you are free to sit. However, it is appropriate to stand during the Gospel reading, the Little and Great Entrances, the distribution of Holy Communion, when the priest gives a blessing, and at the Dismissal. Just follow the congregation!

Lighting candles?
Lighting candles is an important part of Orthodox worship and piety. We light candles as we pray, making an offering to accompany our prayers. Orthodox typically light candles when coming into the church, but there are times when candles should not be lit. Candles should not be lit during the Epistle or Gospel readings, during the Little Entrance, and during the sermon. By the way, you do not have to be an Orthodox Christian to light a candle and pray in an Orthodox church!

Can non-Orthodox receive the Holy Eucharist?
Because the Eucharist is one of the Sacred Mysteries of the Orthodox Church, only baptised and chrismated Orthodox Christians who have prepared themselves through prayer and fasting may receive communion. This is the ancient tradition of the Holy Church for the 2,000 years of its history. The Orthodox Church understands the Holy Eucharist as a mystery of the real presence of Christ in the Eucharist, not simply as a memorial, or merely in a spiritual sense, as many other non-Orthodox Christians do. We ask that you respect the ancient, apostolic tradition regarding communion, rather join us in receiving the ‘antidoron’ (blessed bread) at the end of the Divine Liturgy.

What are all the pictures?
Orthodox Churches of all cultures are adorned with these pictures called Icons. Icons have been a part of Christian worship since the first century. They depict the life and acts of Jesus Christ and the saints, the heros of the Faith, who are alive in heaven with God, yet still present with us. You will see people kiss and bow to (venerate) the icons as a sign of respect. While Jesus Christ, the saints, and the angels are all around us (Hebrews 12:1), we cannot see them. The icons are a way for us to honour them. You can learn more about holy icons here.

You do not have to venerate the icons if you are uncomfortable doing so. If you do, out of respect for others please be sure your lips are clean (no lipstick, please).

What is Orthodox worship music like?
An Orthodox service is chanted and sung, lead by readers and the choir, it is primarily congregational singing. Traditionally, Orthodox do not use instruments. Usually a choir leads the people in ‘a capella’ harmony, with the level of congregational response varying from parish to parish. The style of music varies as well, from very traditional Byzantine-sounding chant in some parishes, to more Western-sounding four-part Russian music, with lots of variation in between. The music is solemn, prayerful and intended to lead the faithful to worship the living God.

New visitors will find there are many new things to experience in a Holy Orthodox Church service! Feel free to go at your own pace, ask any questions you want, and know you are most welcome to “come and see”!

Sunday, 27 July 2014

The Efficacy of prayer - Father Matta El-Meskeen

Somewhere to call home

I have just come back from a visit to a local Church in the hope that it could provide a home for the Coptic Church in Swansea. As the current Area Dean of Swansea I was approached by Fr Seraphim (and some of his parishioners) who currently serves as priest of the local Coptic congregation, travelling up from London every fortnight to celebrate the Liturgy and teach the people here. With the current problems in Syria and the Middle East, the numbers of refugees from that part of the world has been growing in Swansea and with it the number of Coptic families here. So back in April I was asked if I knew any of the churches in Swansea who would either share their building with the Copts or was available for them to have on a permanent basis.

Sadly the only building available - and closing - requires so much money spending on it that it seems unlikely that the small Coptic population here will be able to afford it. It will need in excess of £100,000 spending on it to fix the tower and renovate the hall at the rear. St. Luke's would have been ideal. It is a much loved church (see picture) with lovely stained glass windows and over 130 years of love and prayer invested in it. The current congregation - moving out in October - would have been thrilled to have seen Christian worship continue there, but the financial demands will probably mean it being sold and either turned into housing or some kind of commercial enterprise.

Our (their) only hope is in God. There is no money around either in the pockets - and bank accounts - of the refugees or through the local authority and so it is to Him we must turn. What is hard is that you feel so desperate to help. You long to reach out in love and fellowship with those who are so far from home and need to settle both physically, psychologically and spiritually in a strange and new land. But just as the "Son of Man has nowhere to lay his head"  neither, for the moment, does His people, the Copts. Please pray for them and for Fr Seraphim their shepherd. Their website is here: http://www.swanseacopticchurch.co.uk/ And if you can help financially I am sure they would love to hear from you.

Friday, 25 July 2014

Journeys to Orthodoxy

As an evangelical (Anglican) leaning towards Eastern Orthodoxy I was fascinated to read on the website "Journey to Orthodoxy" about the influx of Protestants of all shades into the Orthodox Church. In fact, according to Fr Peck "over 70% of priests in the Orthodox church in America today are converts" compared with "10% a few decades ago". And not

Among them are Frederica Mathewes-Green whose husband was a priest in the Episcopalian church when they converted to Eastern Orthodoxy. Another convert from the Anglican church is Kallistos Ware, an Oxford-educated scholar who intensely encountered Orthodoxy when he travelled through Greece. He is now an Orthodox Metropolitan.

Jaroslav Pelikan, who was a preeminent church historian and a professor at Yale. He was from a strongly Lutheran family and became a church historian and Lutheran scholar, earning a PhD by the age of 22. He converted to Eastern Orthodoxy at the age of 70 years old in 1996.

Another was Peter E Gillquist who was involved with Campus Crusade where he became regional director.
While there Gilquist and some co-workers began studying historical Christianity. After reading the Church Fathers they eventually became convinced that the Orthodox church was the only unchanged historical church. Gillquist finally converted, in 1987,  leading 17 parishes and 2,000 evangelicals with him.

Another convert from evangelicalism is Frank Schaeffer, the son of Francis Schaeffer who was a leading light in the evangelical world writing books like A Christian Manifesto, How Should We Then Live?, and True Spirituality and starting L’abri, a centre for discussion and debate about faith and spirituality.

Frank became an artist and filmmaker who picked up the reigns and followed his father’s path, until the mid-1980′s when he publicly stepped away, converting to Eastern Orthodoxy in 1992.

Peter Jackson was an evangelical and Wycliffe Bible Translators missionary to Columbia. He joined an Orthodox church while on the mission field and went on to study at an Orthodox seminary before serving at Sts. Theodore Russian Orthodox Church in Buffalo NY.

Matthew Gallatin was part of the Jesus movement. He was a singer/songwriter, youth minister, and Calvary Chapel pastor. After a study of the early church he converted to Eastern Orthodoxy.

Joel Kalvesmaki was a missionary with OM. After a conversation a fellow Wheaton grad and OM missionary shared about his search into the Orthodox Church with Joel, he was skeptical. So he began to read up on the Church Fathers to argue again his friend’s journey. He was initially very anti-Orthodox but the more he read, the more he realised his lack of understanding of his own evangelical faith. First he considered Anglicanism, then to a greater degree Roman Catholicism but eventually the belief that the Orthodox best hold to the simplicity of early faith rather than adding to it led him into Orthodoxy.

John Maddex helped run Moody Radio for years. His daughters attended Moody and Wheaton. Then one daughter and her boyfriend began exploring Eastern Orthodoxy after some church history courses, and the other daughter and her boyfriend followed on. John began attending with them purely to be able to argue against their journey into Orthodoxy. His wife immediately felt at home in the Orthodox church, and as he began to read the Church Fathers his arguments also melted away. After the whole family converted he ended up starting Ancient Faith radio for the Orthodox Church, and I got to hear him speak in a spiritual formation course while I was at Moody.

These are just a few of the more better known ex-protestants mentioned on the website, the tip of a much larger iceberg. In itself, of course, it does not add up to a compelling argument that Orthodoxy is right, but it does, at the very least, point towards some kind of work of the Spirit as He does seem to be drawing people in that direction.

Do not judge

A brother at Scetis committed a fault. A council was called to which Abba Moses was invited, but he refused to go to it. Then the priest sent someone to say to him, ‘Come, for everyone is waiting’ for you.’ So he got up and went. He took a leaking jug, filled it with water and carried it with him. The others came out to meet him and said to him, ‘What is this, Father?’ The old man said to them, ‘My sins run out behind me, and I do not see them, and today I am coming to judge the errors of another.’ When they heard that they said no more to the brother but forgave him.

Thursday, 24 July 2014

Spiritual versus corporal pleasures

"There is a great difference, dearly beloved brethren, between corporal and spiritual delights, in that the former, when we are without them, enkindle in the soul a strong desire to possess them, but once they are attained, they quickly satiate us. Spiritual pleasures, on the contrary, when attained, produce a certain aversion; but once we taste them, the taste awakens desire, and our hunger for them increases the more we taste them."
St.Gregory the Great (AD 540-604)

Wednesday, 23 July 2014

Comparison between three great divisions of Christianity

What are the major differences between Orthodoxy, Protestantism and Roman Catholicism? The following website offers a useful table drawing out comparisons between the three major divisions of Christianity:

http://christianityinview.com/comparison.html

Tuesday, 22 July 2014

The broad and the narrow road

The following quote maybe underlines where many of the Protestant churches are going wrong. They are allowing people to tell them what they need instead of providing them with what God has given. The first way is the way of compromise - it is the broad road. The second is the way to life - and it proving too narrow for so many.

“Why are so many young people leaving the church? I don’t think it’s all that complicated. God seems irrelevant to them. They see God as existing to meet their needs and make them happy. And sure, God can make them feel good, but so can a lot of other things. Making piles of money feels good. Climbing the corporate ladder feels good. Buying a motorcycle and spending days cruising around the country feels good … if God is simply one option on a buffet, why stick with God?”
Stephen Altrogge, Untamable God

St. Anthony and salvation

“When the holy Abba Antony lived in the desert he was attacked by many sinful thoughts. He said to God, “Lord, I want to be saved but these thoughts do not leave me alone; what shall I do in my affliction? How can I be saved?” A short while afterwards, when he got up to go out, Antony saw a man like himself sitting at his work, getting up from his work to pray, then sitting down and plaiting a rope, then getting up again to pray. It was an angel of the Lord sent to correct and reassure him. He heard the angel saying to him, “Do this and you will be saved.” At these words, Antony was filled with joy and courage. He did this, and he was saved.”
From The Life Of St. Antony The Great

I was reflecting on this passage from the Life of Anthony and wondering what it meant? First, the association between sinful thoughts and salvation. What have they to do with one another? As an evangelical I have always thought - and been taught - that salvation was something that was final, given by Christ, received by faith. That was it. The rest of my life is to be spent praying, reading my Bible, worshipping and serving him. Sins were to be confessed daily - keep short accounts with God - and no more. But here in St. Anthony is the idea that salvation is something not just to be received - through what Christ has done for us which we could not do for ourselves (Ephesians 2:8) - but also something to be worked out (Philippians 2:12). We are not to rest on our laurels but to "manfully... fight under his Banner against sin, the world, and the devil, and to continue Christ's faithful soldier, and servant (to our live's) end (1662 Book of Common Prayer). So Anthony's prayer is to ask God how he can do this?

Second, God's answer is in a vision and a word. The vision is to see someone who looks like him ("a man like himself") working, praying, sitting and plaiting a rope before praying again. The word follows: "Do this and you will be saved." But it was not the word that saved Anthony. It was his obedience. "He did this, and he was saved."

Finally, was he saved there and then? No, but he entered the way of salvation. And "He that shall endure to the end shall be saved (Matthew 24:13)."

The judgements of God

'When the same Abba Anthony thought about the depth of the judgements of God, he asked, 'Lord, how is it that some die when they are young, while others drag on to extreme old age? Why are there those who are poor and those who are rich? Why do wicked men prosper and why are the just in need? he heard a voice answering him, 'Anthony, keep your attention on yourself; these things are according to the judgement of God, and it is not to your advantage to know anything about them.'

Assurance of forgiveness

I love these words spoken by the priest following the confession of the penitent during the Sacrament (Mystery) of Confession:

"May God, who pardoned David
through Nathan the prophet,
when he confessed his sins,
and Peter weeping bitterly for his denial,
and the sinful woman weeping at his feet,
and the publican and the prodigal son,
may that same God forgive you everything through me, a sinner,
both in this world and in the world to come,
and set you uncondemned before his terrible judgment seat.
Having no further care for the sins you have confessed, go in peace."

How are we saved?

The following is a sermon called "How are we saved?" which is an Orthodox understanding of salvation. The sermon can be found here:

http://www.goarch.org/ourfaith/how-are-we-saved

Nov 2, 2012 by 
Fr. Theodore Stylianopoulos

Twenty First Sunday: Epistle Reading: Galatians 2:16-20

Knowing that a man is not justified by works of the Law, but through faith in Jesus Christ, even we have believed in Christ Jesus, in order to be justified by faith in Christ, and not by works of the Law, because by works of the Law shall no one be justified . . . For through the Law I have died to the Law, that I might live to God. I have been crucified with Christ; it is no longer I who live, but Christ who lives in me; and the life I now live in the flesh I live by faith in the Son of God, who loved me and gave himself for me-- Gal 2:16-17, 19-20.

A large segment of Protestant Christians in the United States are known as Evangelicals. Evangelicals take the Bible seriously. They center their lives on the evangelion (the gospel)--the good news of salvation. They often talk about personal salvation, about “how you get saved,” and the familiar answer is: Accept Christ as your personal Saviour in sincere prayer, ask Him to come into your heart and forgive your sins, and you are saved. You are then put right before God and enjoy a personal relationship with Christ. This event is called “justification by faith” or more generally “salvation by faith,” apart from good works. This teaching is based on texts especially from the letters of St. Paul, such as the above (Gal 2:16-20). Many Evangelicals recall the exact date and time of being “born again” and celebrate it as the foremost event in their lives.

We do not judge the sincere convictions of other Christians, lest we be judged, according to the words of the Lord (Mat 7:1). Justification by faith is an authentic teaching of the New Testament. It is also a part of Orthodox teaching because whatever the New Testament teaches as essential, the Orthodox Church teaches as well. The Bible belongs to the Church. Equally, the acts of penitent prayer, asking God for forgiveness, and inviting Christ and the Holy Spirit to dwell in our hearts--these acts, too, are indispensable to Orthodox Christian life. But we must ask: is salvation a one-time event in life? What is the role of faith and works in the mystery of our salvation? What does Jesus say? What does St. Paul say? What do we teach about these issues as Orthodox Christians?

Let’s take a few examples from the life of Christ. We know that Jesus emphasized faith. To the woman with the issue of blood whom He healed, He said: “Your faith has made you well” (Mark 5:34). To the blind beggar He met on a street in Jericho and also healed, He said: “Your faith has made you well” (Mark 10:52). Jesus tied personal faith in Him to the efficacy of healings. But was faith the most critical factor behind these cures? Jesus perceived “power had gone forth from him” to heal the woman with the issue of blood (Mark 5:30). Sometimes Christ out of compassion healed people without asking for faith (Mark 1:34; 3:5). And so with all the acts of healing, it was above all Christ’s divine power that cured the sick, the lame, and the blind. The role of faith was significant but secondary to divine grace. God provided the grace, faith received the gift.

Jesus connected personal faith in Him to our eternal salvation. He declared: “Every one who acknowledges me before people, I also will acknowledge them before my Father in heaven; but whoever denies me before people, I also will deny them before my father in heaven” (Mat 10:32-33). The Gospel of John frequently connects faith in Christ to each person’s eternal destiny. We read: “For God so loved the world that He gave His only Son, that whoever believes in Him should not perish but have eternal life” (John 3:16). And again: “I am the resurrection and the life; he who believes in me, though he die, yet shall he live, and whoever lives and believes in me shall never die” (John 11:25-26). Christ further declared to Thomas: “Have you believed because you have seen me? Blessed are those who have not seen and yet believe” (John 20:29). Jesus himself is the supreme example of faith. In the garden of Gethsemane, as He confronted the prospect of death by crucifixion, Christ prayed to God: “Not my will, by Thy will be done” (Mat 26:39). Without doubt, faith had a primary place in the life and teaching of Jesus.

But Jesus also demanded good works to go along with faith. A man came up to Him with a question about eternal salvation. “Teacher,” he asked, “what good deed (ti agathon) must I do, to have eternal life?” Jesus did not send him away or correct him. He didn’t say: “You are asking the wrong question; you need only to believe in me and you will be saved.” Rather Jesus said to him: “Keep the commandments . . . You shall not kill; you shall not commit adultery; you shall not steal; you shall not bear false witness; honor your father and mother, and love your neighbor as yourself” (Mat 19:16-19). Rather than separate faith and works, Jesus closely united the two as being definitive to Christian life. That’s the undeniable implication of His great discourse we call “Sermon on the Mount.” The Sermon contains a vast amount of teachings and exhortations Christ expected His followers to learn and live by (Mat. chaps. 5-7). “Do not bear false witness . . . Love your enemies . . . Seek first God’s kingdom and His righteousness . . . Judge not, that you be not judged” (Mat 5:33, 44; 6:33; 7:1). Jesus set down these teachings as the necessary standards of moral righteousness. At the end of the Sermon on the Mount He denounced the kind of faith that is only lip service. He said those who relied only on faith risked the loss of eternal salvation. He warned: “On that day many will call out to me ‘Lord, Lord, did we not prophesy and cast out demons in your name?’ And then I will declare to them: ‘I never knew you; depart from me, you evildoers’” (Mat 7:21-23).

Let us also recall the parable about the Last Judgment (Mat 25:31-46). When Christ comes in His glory with all the angels, He will gather all the nations before Him for universal judgment. Everyone will be divided into two groups--the sheep on the right and the goats on the left--before Christ the King. The ones on the right will be blessed and given the inheritance of the eternal kingdom. The ones on the left will be cursed and sent off to eternal fire. What will make the difference? What will be the criterion of judgment? Works of mercy! Feeding the hungry, welcoming the stranger, clothing the naked, visiting the sick and the prisoner. Jesus declared: “Truly, I say to you, as you did it to one of the least of these my brethren, you did it to me” (Mat 25:40).

On another occasion Jesus referred to faith as lifetime work. He urged a crowd not to “labor for the food that perishes, but for the food which endures to eternal life.” They asked: “What must we do to be doing the works of God (Ti poiomen ina ergazometha to erga tou Theou)?” He replied: “This is the work of God (to ergon tou Theou): that you believe in Him whom God has sent” (John 6:27-29). The most pleasing work to God is the continuous exercise of faith in Christ as Savior and Lord throughout our lives. Christ promised us a continuous personal communion with Him, a continuous Easter experience, based on love, faith, and the keeping of His commandments. He said: “If you love me, you will keep my commandments . . . If a person loves me, He will keep my word, and my Father will love him, and we will come to him and make our home with him” (John 14:15-17, 23). Our “new birth” is given to us in Baptism according to the words of the Lord: “Truly, truly, I say to you, unless one is born of water and the Spirit, he cannot enter the kingdom of God” (John 3:5). And if we lose our way, heartfelt prayer, repentance, Holy Confession and Holy Communion provide personal occasions for spiritual renewal throughout our lives. How important for salvation the Eucharist is, we know from the words of Christ: “He who eats my flesh and drinks my blood has eternal life, and I will raise him up at the last day” (John 6:54). In these many ways, according to Christ, Orthodox Christians throughout their lives receive salvation and renewal through faith, works, and the sacraments of the Church.

Then there is St. Paul. The apostle is known as the foremost advocate of justification by faith. In the above text of Gal 2:16-20, St. Paul seems to say something very different than His Master about faith and works. These words of Paul reflect his conversion by which he left behind the Law of Moses and joined Christ wholeheartedly. Previously the Mosaic Law was the center of his life, but after Damascus Christ became the core of his being. Christ dwelt in St. Paul: “It is no longer I who live, but Christ who lives in me” (Gal 2:20). From this transformed perspective Paul contrasted and opposed faith and works. He did so categorically: “A person is not justified by works of the Law but through faith in Jesus Christ; even we have believed in Christ Jesus, in order to be justified by faith in Christ, and not by works of the Law, because by works of the Law shall no one be justified” (Gal 2:16). The key to this passage is to see that St. Paul is referring not to ethical works but to “works of the Law” (erga tou nomou), namely, the Mosaic Law.

What are the works of the Mosaic Law? Anyone who studies Galatians carefully will note the apostle is referring to the Jewish religious practices of circumcision, dietary laws, and festivals (Gal 2:2-5, 12; 4:9; 5:1-6, 12; 6:12-15). The same reference to “works of the Law” is also primary in the Letter to the Romans (Rom 3:19-20, 27-30). For Paul, such practices were no longer necessary for salvation. Christ had fulfilled their purpose and also terminated them at the same time (Rom 8:4; 10:4). For Paul, to adopt such religious practices as some Gentile Christians were doing, was nothing less that betrayal of the gospel (Gal 1:6-9). He declared: “I testify again to every man who receives circumcision that he is bound to keep the whole Law. You are severed from Christ, you who would be justified by the Law; you have fallen away from grace” (Gal 5:3-4). St. Paul is not opposing faith to ethical works but to the “works of the Law.”

But what does St. Paul say about ethical works? Do ethical works have a place in salvation? The answer is, most certainly, yes. In the same Letter to the Galatians, Paul uses a striking expression: “faith working through love” (Gal 5:6). Yes, faith is primary, but faith working through love--loving deeds. Good deeds are inseparable from and essential to the life of faith. Otherwise, according to Paul, those who commit sinful acts and do not repent of them--and he names them: fornication, idolatry, sorcery, selfishness, drunkenness, carousing, and the like--“will not inherit the kingdom of God” (Gal 5:21; see also 1 Cor 6:9-11). In other words, those who do such things, including Christians to whom he is writing, will suffer ultimate loss of salvation. Toward the end of Galatians Paul pens the following admonition as well: “Do not be deceived; God is not mocked, for whatever a person sows, that he will also reap . . . Let us not grow weary in doing good (to agathon), for in due season we shall reap, if we do not lose heart . . . Let us do good to all, and especially to those who are of the household of the faith” (Gal 6:7, 9-10). We come to Christ as sinners and are justified by faith apart from good works. But once we connect with Christ and enjoy a saving relationship with Him, we ought to honor Him with good works because we love Christ and also because our final judgment will hinge in part on the criterion of good deeds. Paul states: “For we must all appear before the judgment seat of Christ, so that each one may receive good or evil, according to what he has done in the body” (2 Cor 5:10).

According to St. Paul, not only loving deeds but also the sacraments of Baptism (Rom 6:1-11) and the Eucharist (1 Cor 10:16-22; 11:23-32) are decisive to salvation. Read carefully Paul’s Letter to the Romans, chapters 1-6. Note how often in chapters 1-5 he speaks of faith, the importance of faith, and the blessings that come from faith. But when do all these blessings take place? What is the event at which salvation truly takes hold? Baptism! That’s the answer St. Paul gives in Romans, chapter 6. All of chapter 6 is about Baptism and life after Baptism. For Paul, it is in Baptism that the believer is united with Christ, dies to the power of sin, and receives new life in Christ (6:1-11). Baptized Christians ought to use their bodies no longer “as instruments of sin but as weapons of righteousness” (6:12-13). Life after Baptism, says Paul, includes the responsibility to live by the “standard of teaching” (typon didaches) which Christians have been taught (6:17). Otherwise, even for Christians, “the wages of sin is death” (6:23). Paul is clear-cut about the criterion of final judgment: “God will render to every person according to his works; to those who by patience in well-doing seek for glory and honor and immortality, God will give eternal life; but for those who . . . obey wickedness, there will be wrath and fury” (Rom 2:6-8).

Let us sum up the main points. The work of salvation belongs entirely to God. It is God through Christ and the Holy Spirit, who has the divine power to rescue us from the forces of sickness, evil, sin, death, and the devil. It is God through Christ and the Holy Spirit who alone provides justification, forgiveness, and new life to sinners who come to Him with faith. And God provides salvation as a most amazing and unceasing gift to all sincere seekers.

From our side, the question is about receiving and using the gift of salvation. The gift is offered, but if we do not receive it, we don’t have it, and certainly cannot use it. God offers the gift. We can choose to accept it or reject it. As Orthodox Christians we do not believe in predestination. Jesus said: “Whoever wants to come after me, let him take up his cross and follow me” (Mark 8:34). The gift and the challenge to follow Jesus through a life of faith and works coincide.

The reception of the gift of salvation is not a one-time event but a life-time process. St. Paul employs the verb “to save” (sozesthai) in the past tense (“we have been saved,” Rom 8:24; Eph 2:5); in the present tense (“we are being saved,” 1 Cor 1:18; 15:2), and in the future tense (“we will be saved,” Rom 5:10). He can think even of justification as a future event and part of the final judgment (Rom 2:13, 16). For Paul, Christians are involved in a lifetime covenant with God in which we work, planting and watering, but it is “only God who gives the growth” (1 Cor 3:7). We are “co-workers with God” (synergoi Theou, 1 Cor 3:9; 1 Thess 3:2). (Not “co-workers under God” as some translations would have it). The mystery of salvation is a duet, not a solo. It is a life-time engagement with God. It has ups and downs, twists and turns, with opportunities to grow in the love of God, knowing that we can turn to Him again and again and receive forgiveness and a new birth. When we come to Christ as sinners, we have no works to offer to Him, but only faith and repentance. But once we come to Him and receive the gift of salvation, we enter into a sacred covenant to honor Him with good works. We read in Ephesians: “For by grace you have been saved through faith; and this is not your own doing, it is the gift of God . . . [We are] created in Christ Jesus for good works” (Eph 2:8-10).

The teaching of the New Testament is that God’s grace, our free will, and our faith and good works, are intimately connected. The Holy Spirit energizes in us both faith and good works as we thirst for and seek God’s grace. Neither faith nor good works can be presented as merit before God, but only as return gifts in humility, love, and thanksgiving. Let us not forget as well the sober words of James: “Faith by itself, if it has no works, is dead . . . Faith is completed by works . . . A person is justified by works and not by faith alone” (James 2:17, 22, 24). By free will, faith, and earnest labours, we work together with the grace of God in the awesome gift and mystery of salvation. As St. Paul puts it: “Work out your own salvation with fear and trembling; for God is at work in you, both to will and to work His good pleasure” (Phil 2:12-13). To God Almighty, together with the Son and the Holy Spirit, be praise and worship forever. Amen.

Monday, 21 July 2014

Elder Sophrony

Over twenty years ago when I first started praying the Jesus Prayer I wrote to Elder Sophrony at his home in St john the baptist monastery in tolleshunt knights, Essex asking for help and advice. Elder Sophrony very kindly sent me a copy of his book "His Life in Mine" which I have treasured ever since. Here is a video of Bishop Kallistos reminiscing about his association with the saint

Saint Gregory Palamas on the Holy Spirit

After willingly suffering for our salvation, being buried and rising on the third day, He ascended into heaven and sat down on the right hand of the Father, whence He co-operated in the descent of the divine Spirit upon His disciples by sending down together with the Father the power from on high, as Both had promised (see Luke 24.49). Having sat down in the heavens, He seems to call to us from there, “If anyone wants to approach this glory, become a partaker of the kingdom of heaven, be called a son of God and find eternal life, inexpressible honour, pure joy and never-ending riches, let him heed My commandments and imitate as far as he can My own way of life. Let him follow My actions and teachings when I came into the world in the flesh to establish saving laws and offer Myself as a patter.” Truly the Saviour confirmed the gospel teaching by His deeds and miracles, and fulfilled it through His sufferings. He proved how beneficial it was for salvation by His resurrection from the dead, His ascension into heaven, and now by the descent of the Divine Spirit upon His disciples, the event we celebrate today. After rising from the dead and appearing to His disciples, He said as He was taken up into heaven, “Behold, I send the promise of my Father upon you: but tarry ye in the city of Jerusalem, until ye be endowed with power from on high” (Luke 24.49). “For ye shall receive power, after that the Holy Ghost is come upon you: and ye shall be witnesses unto me both in Jerusalem, and in all Judea, and unto the uttermost parts of the earth” (see Acts 1.8).

When the fiftieth day after the resurrection had come, the day we now commemorate, all the disciples were gathered together with one accord in the upper room, each also having gathered together his thoughts (for they were devoting themselves intently to prayer and hymns to God). “And suddenly”, says Luke the evangelist, “there came a sound from heaven as of a rushing mighty wind, and it filled the house where they were sitting” (Acts 2.1-11). This is the sound which the prophetess Hannah foretold when she received the promise concerning Samuel: “The Lord went up to heaven and thundered; and he shall give strength and exalt the horn of his anointed” (see 1 Samuel 2.10 LXX). Elijah’s vision also forewarned of this sound: “Behold the voice of a light breeze, and in it was the Lord” (see 1 Kings 19.12 LXX). This “voice of a light breeze” is the sound of breath. You might also find a reference to it in Christ’s gospel. According to John the theologian and evangelist, “In the last day, that great day of the feast”, that is to say Pentecost, “Jesus stood and cried, saying, If any man thirst, let him come unto me and drink…. This spake he of the Spirit, which they that believe on him should receive” (John 7.37-39). Again, after His resurrection He breathed on His disciples and said, “Receive ye the Holy Ghost” (John 20.22).

That cry of Christ prefigured this sound, and His breathing upon the disciples foretold the breath, which is now poured down abundantly from above and resounds with a great voice heard far and wide, summoning everything under heaven, pouring grace over all who approach with faith and filling them with it. It is forceful in that it is all-conquering, storms the ramparts of evil, and destroys all the enemy’s cities and strongholds. It brings low the proud and lifts up the humble in heart, binds what should not have been loosed, breaks the bonds of sins and undoes what is held fast. It filled the house where they were sitting, making it a spiritual font, and accomplishing the promise which the Saviour made them when He ascended, saying, “For John truly baptised with water; but ye shall be baptised with the Holy Ghost not many days hence” (Acts 1.5). Even the name which He gave them proved to be true, for through this noise from heaven the apostles actually became sons of Thunder (see Mark 3.17). “And there appeared unto them”, it says, “cloven tongues like as of fire, and it sat upon each of them. And they were all filled with the Holy Ghost, and began to speak with other tongues, as the Spirit gave them utterance” (Acts 2.3-4).

Those miracles accomplished by the Lord in the flesh, which bore witness that He was God’s only-begotten Son in His own person, united with us in the last days, came to an end. On the other hand, those wondered began which proclaimed the Holy Spirit as a divine person in His own right, that we might come to know and contemplate the great and venerable mystery of the Holy Trinity. The Holy Spirit had been active before: it was He who spoke through the prophets and proclaimed things to come. Later He worked through the disciples to drive out demons and heal diseases. But now He was manifested to all in His own person through the tongues of fire, and by sitting enthroned as Lord upon each of Christ’s disciples, He made them instruments of His power.

Why did He appear in the form of tongues? It was to demonstrate that He shared the same nature as the Word of God, for there is no relationship closer than that between word and tongue. It was also because of teaching, since teaching Christ’s gospel needs a tongue full of grace. But why fiery tongues? Not just because the Spirit is consubstantial with the Father and the Son—and our God is fire (see Hebrews 12.29), a fire consuming wickedness—but also because of the twofold energy of the apostles’ preaching, which can bring both benefit and punishment. As it is the property of fire to illuminate and burn, so Christ’s teaching enlightens those who obey but finally hands over the disobedient to eternal fire and punishment. The text says, “tongues like fire” not “tongues of fire”, that no one might imagine it was ordinary physical fire, but that we might understand the manifestation of the Spirit using fire as an example. Why did the tongues appear to be divided among them? Because the Spirit is given by measure by the Father to all except Christ (John 3.34), who Himself came from above. He, even in the flesh, possessed the fullness of divine power and energy, whereas the grace of the Holy Spirit was only partially, not fully, contained within anyone else. Each one obtained different gifts, lest anyone should suppose the grace given to the saints by the Holy Spirit was theirs by nature.

The fact that the divine Spirit sat upon them is proof not just of His lordly dignity, but of His unity. He sat, it says, “upon each of them. And they were all filled with the Holy Ghost” (Acts 2.3-4). For although divided in His various powers and energies, in each of His works the Holy Spirit is wholly present and active, undividedly divided, partaken of while remaining complete, like the sun’s ray. They spoke with other tongues, other languages, to people from every nation, as the Spirit gave them utterance. They became instruments of the divine Spirit, inspired and motivated according to His will and power.
Saint Gregory Palamas, from a Pentecost sermon.

Who was St. Pachomius?

Born of pagan parents in the Upper Thebaid of Egypt, St. Pachomius (292-346) was a soldier before his baptism in 314. He became a hermit in 317. Called the Father of Cenobitic Monasticism, he wrote a rule that balances the communal life with the solitary life. The monks live in individual cells but work together for the common good of the community. Prayer is both corporate and private. He established his first monastery around 323 in Tabennisi. St. Pachomius died during a plague, and at the time of his death, he was the spiritual leader of about 3,000 monks.

St. Jerome translated the rule of St. Pachomius into Latin in 404, and only this translation survives. The rule of St. Pachomius influenced St. Benedict in preparing his own rule for monks.

The prayer rule of St. Pachomius

In his book on the Jesus Prayer, St. Ignatius Brianchaninov introduces us to one of the earliest prayer rules of the Church:

"An angel of God taught St. Pachomius the Great a rule of prayer for the vast community of monks dependent on him. The monks under the spiritual direction of St. Pachomius had to perform the rule every day. Only those who had attained perfection and the unceasing prayer connected with it were freed from the obligation to perform the rule. The rule taught by the angel consisted of the Trisagion, the Lord's prayer, Psalm 50, the Symbol of Faith (Creed) and one hundred Jesus Prayers. In the rule, the Prayer of Jesus is spoken of like the Lord's Prayer, that is, as prayers generally known and in general use."

You can find the above prayers here.

Sunday, 20 July 2014

Why I'm an Orthodox Christian

The following post has been copied from the following blog http://www.piousfabrications.com/ (since changed to http://davidwithun.com/). Unfortunately I have not been able to find an email address to contact the author for permission so if he reads this, my sincere apologies. It is a really good article which I thought would be of interest to those who want to know more about Orthodoxy:

Why I'm an Orthodox Christian, Or: How I can prove the Orthodox Church is the One Holy Catholic & Apostolic Church

"I'm naturally a very skeptical person; I question everything -- there's hardly a thing I read or hear that I don't source-check -- and then source-check the sources. My incredulous nature has always been both a blessing and a curse for me. It's always made it hard for me to trust people and it certainly made my journey to Christianity -- and then Orthodoxy -- a much longer one than it might have otherwise been. But, once I reach a conclusion, I tend to have a firm conviction that I've arrived at the truth, if for no other reason than that I've exhausted every possible objection I could raise to it.

So... Of course, I applied my principles as I learned about the Orthodox Church. The Orthodox Church said it was the ancient Church, so I learned about the ancient Church, reading every bit of the source texts -- even the Gnostics' gibberish; the Orthodox Church said it had never changed the Faith in the last 2000 years, and everybody else has, so I read everything I could get my hands on about Church history -- from every perspective possible; the Orthodox Church said it was the True Church -- so I source-checked it. And, of course, you all know the conclusion I reached.

I want to share with everyone the three "methods" I used when I was "source-checking" the Church's claims, and I hope they'll help someone who reads this to make an informed decision, even if it's not the one I made:

First, I started in AD 33 with Pentecost and followed the Church to today. This involved reading lots of histories and pretty much all of the early Fathers and quite a bit of the later Fathers (and even the various heretics). The question that I kept asking myself the whole way through is "who is changing? who is innovating?" The reason this is important is because any departure, however slight, from the Faith of the Apostles is a betrayal of that Faith; it's basically saying that the Apostles had things wrong or didn't have everything, that Christ left them incomplete. And this is obviously wrong. Scripture tells us to "cling to the Faith which was once for all handed down to the saints" (Jude 1:3) and so I knew that's what I had to look for along the way: who is clinging, as Scripture commands us to do, and who is changing. And I followed that through to today. And I ended up in Moscow, Damascus, Alexandria, Bucharest, Sofia -- in short, I ended up in the Orthodox Church.

I then did the reverse; I started with today and worked my way back. I knew it was impossible to look at each and every individual Christian group and trace each individually back, as there are several thousand. So, what I decided to do was divide them into five umbrella groups:

Orthodox Church
Roman Catholic Church
"Traditional" Protestantism (Lutherans, Anglicans, Presbyterians, etc.)
"Low-church" Protestantism (Baptists, Pentecostals, "Evangelicals," etc.)
Restorationists (Mormons, Jehovah's Witnesses, Seventh-Day Adventists, etc.)

Starting with these five basic "movements" in Christianity, I traced each back to their roots from today. I found the roots of the Restorationists in the 1700's and 1800's, mostly in America. I found the roots of the "Low-church" Protestants in the 1600's and 1700's in the Anabaptist movement and, in the case of the Pentecostals, in the early 1900's in America. I found the roots of the "Traditional" Protestants in Germany with Martin Luther, England with King Henry VIII, and Switzerland with John Calvin. The Roman Catholic Church was a little harder, as I certainly find its roots in the ancient Church, but I also saw a single Patriarch, the Pope of Rome, split from the four other Patriarchs (Constantinople, Alexandria, Jerusalem, and Antioch) in 1054 to go and form his own Church, the Roman Catholic Church of today. And so it was only the Orthodox I was able to trace all the way back, through time, to the first century in Palestine with the 12 holy men called Apostles.

And the third way I took was to take everything I had learned about what the ancient Christians believed and practiced, especially those of the first and second centuries, as they are the closest to the Apostles, and compared it with those five groups of Christians I gave above. I compared even the minutest details. I made columns in a notebook for each group and marked wherein they agreed or disagreed with the Christianity of the year 100 or so; early Christians fasted on Wednesdays and Fridays - check; early Christians believed in the Real Presence - check; early Christians Baptized via triple immersion - check; early Christians used incense in worship - check. And, when I had finished, I found only one "group" whose column was filled top to bottom with my little checks -- the Orthodox Church.

So that's a little bit about how I reached my conclusions. It's not the full story by any means -- as I said, I'll share that when I have the time to tell it. Of course, there was a lot more prayer and tears involved than the dry mathematical equations I give above -- not enough, but there was quite a bit of it. I don't know if I'd recommend my methods to others -- many people would probably get tired after a while; it's a long, often mind-boggling process, and I'm sure many would find it a little too calculated for religious matters. I understand the objections to my methods, but that's how I did it -- and I'm certain that anyone who does the same will reach the exact same conclusion as I did.

Repentance and other's sins

"He who busies himself with the sins of others, or judges his brother on suspicion, has not yet even begun to repent or to examine himself so as to discover his own sins..."
St. Maximos the Confessor (Third Century on Love no. 55)

Baptism and the grace of the Holy Spirit

"In spite of our sinfulness, in spite of the darkness surrounding our souls, the Grace of the Holy Spirit, conferred by baptism in the name of the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit, still shines in our hearts with the inextinguishable light of Christ ... and when the sinner turns to the way of repentance the light smooths away every trace of the sins committed, clothing the former sinner in the garments of incorruption, spun of the Grace of the Holy Spirit. It is this acquisition of the Holy Spirit about which I have been speaking."
St. Seraphim of Sarov

Faith, hope, discouragement and salvation

"You may find yourself hampered by someone who sows tares of despondency. He tries to prevent you from climbing to such heights of holiness by discouraging you with various thoughts. For instance, he will tell you that it is impossible for you to be saved and to keep every single one of God's commandments while you live in this world. When this happens you should sit down in a solitary place by yourself, collect yourself, concentrate your thoughts and give good counsel to your soul, saying: "Why, my soul, are you dejected, and why do you trouble me? Put your hope in God, for I will give thanks to Him; for my salvation lies not in my actions but in God (cf. Ps. 42:5). Who will be vindicated by actions done according to the law (cf. Gal 2:16)? No living person will be vindicated before God (cf. Ps. 143:2). Yet by virtue of my faith in God I hope that in His ineffable mercy He will give me salvation. Get behind me, Satan (cf. Matt. 16:23). I worship the Lord my God (cf. Matt. 4:10) and serve Him from my youth; for He is able to save me simply through His mercy. Go away from me. The God who created me in His image and likeness will reduce you to impotence."
St. Symeon the New Theologian

Saturday, 19 July 2014

The Bible in Orthodox Worship

Orthodox Christians are not merely to read the Bible, we are also to pray the Bible. This takes place most clearly and completely in the Liturgy of St. John Chrysostom on a Sunday to Sunday basis. Yes, there are two readings from the New Testament during the Liturgy – an Epistle reading from one of the Letters of the apostles Paul, Peter, James and John or other apostolic writings; and a Gospel reading from one of the four evangelists – but we pray the Lord’s Prayer and also sing verses from the Book of Psalms. In the priest’s blessing, “The grace of our Lord Jesus Christ and the love of God the Father and the communion of the Holy Spirit be with you all,” we hear St. Paul’s final farewell to the Church in Corinth (2 Corinthians 13:13); and in the choir’s singing of “Holy, Holy, Holy Lord God of Sabaoth, Heaven and Earth are full of Your glory,” we hear the song of the angelic Cherubim first heard by the Old Testament prophet Isaiah in the Temple in Jerusalem (Isaiah 6:1-5). The prayers of the Liturgy are shot through with hundreds of Biblical quotes. In fact, the late French Orthodox theologian, Paul Evdokimov (1902-1970), once calculated that there are 98 quotations from the Old Testament and 114 quotations from the New Testament woven into the prayers of the Liturgy. To come to Liturgy attentively is to learn to pray the Bible!

In closing, let me remind you of what St. Paul says about the Scriptures:
Everything written in the Scriptures was written to teach us in order that we might have hope through the patience and encouragement that the Scriptures give us.   - Romans 15:4  The Holy Scriptures are able to give you the wisdom that leads to salvation.  All Scripture is inspired by God and is useful for teaching the truth, rebuking error, correcting faults and giving instruction for living rightly.  - 2 Timothy 3:15-16

The articles on the Bible are found here:
http://www.stpaulsirvine.org/bible_orthodox_church.pdf

The Bible and Tradition

Orthodox Christians always interpret the Bible in the context of the Church and the Tradition of the Church. Not that the Bible and the Tradition of the Church are to be juxtaposed to one another: Scripture vs. Tradition, as in the evangelical Protestant scheme of things; or even Scripture and Tradition, as in Roman Catholicism. For us, Scripture and Tradition are not two different things. Rather, the Bible exists within the Tradition of the Church and is the heart and core of the Church’s written Tradition.   Orthodox Christians are always speaking about Tradition – more so than do other Christians. What do we mean by that?

First, when we speak of the Tradition of the Church, we are not talking about “the traditions of men” (Colossians 2:8) condemned by the Apostle Paul. Rather, we are talking about apostolic tradition, the kind of tradition that St. Paul speaks of when he writes to the Thessalonians, “Stand firm and hold fast to the traditions which you were taught, whether by our preaching or by letter from us” (2 Thessalonians 2:15). We need to draw a clear distinction between the tradition of men and the Tradition of the Apostles, between Tradition with a capital “T” and traditions with a small “t”, between the Tradition of the Church and the many pious customs that emerge over time in the many cultures which the Good News of Christ has helped to shape.

Second, the Tradition of the Church is not merely an historical or archaeological exercise, a compilation of dusty religious artifacts from antiquity, and it is never merely an attempt to restore the past for the sake of it being the past. As Metropolitan Kallistos Ware writes, “Tradition is not only kept in the Church – it lives in the Church, it is the life of the Holy Spirit within the Church. The Orthodox conception of Tradition is not static but dynamic, not merely a dead acceptance of the past but a living experience of the Holy Spirit in the present. Loyalty to Tradition means not primarily the acceptance of formulae or customs from past generations but rather the ever- new, personal and direct experience of the Holy Spirit in the present, here and now!”  

The life of the Holy Spirit in the Church – this is the Orthodox understanding of Tradition! And the Holy Spirit has, over the centuries, given the Church the Scriptures, the dogmatic decrees of the Ecumenical Councils, the liturgical and sacramental life, the threefold pattern of ministry, canon law, iconography and the lives and witness of the saints beginning with the Apostles themselves and continuing through the centuries to the present day.

But not all of these aspects of the Tradition are of equal importance: a unique pre-eminence belongs to the Bible, the Creed and the dogmatic decrees of the 7 Ecumenical Councils, confirming the New Testament teaching about Christ and outlining Christian belief in the one God as Trinity – these things Orthodox Christians accept as absolute and unchanging. Other aspects of the Tradition do not bear the same weight. For example, the writings of a St. Symeon the New Theologian writing in 11th century Constantinople do not carry the same importance as the Gospel of John. Indeed, the saints are unanimous in considering the Scriptures foundational to the life of the Church and the heart and core of her Tradition.

Interpreting the Bible

These last two points are particularly important. We must not only read the Scriptures, but also interpret them correctly. For this, we need guidance. Metropolitan Kallistos Ware writes:
“Coming upon the Ethiopian as he read the Book of Isaiah in the Old Testament in his chariot, Philip the Apostle asked him, "Do you understand what you are reading?" And the Ethiopian answered, "How can I, unless someone guides me?" (Acts 8:30-31). We are all in the position of the Ethiopian. The words of Scripture are not always self- explanatory. God speaks directly to the heart of each one of us as we read our Bible. Scripture reading is a personal dialogue between each one of us and Christ - but we also need guidance. We read the Bible personally, but not as isolated individuals. We read as the members of a family, the family of the Orthodox Catholic Church. When reading Scripture, we say not "I" but "We." We read in communion with all the other members of the Body of Christ, in all parts of the world and in all generations of time. The decisive test and criterion for our understanding of what the Scripture means is the mind of the Church for the Bible is the book of the Church.”

And here it is important to remember that not all Christians interpret the Bible in the same way. There can be, for example, a Protestant interpretation of a passage from the Bible that is completely at odds with how we, as Orthodox Christians, would understand the same passage.   To give a concrete example: I was once discussing, with a parishioner, the “non-denominational” Bible study she was attending at a neighbor’s home. She explained to me that when the group met they were not allowed to discuss the church they attended but were to focus instead solely on reading the Bible. When I expressed my concern that there is no such thing as a “non-denominational” approach to the Bible and that the phrase “non-denominational” – for an Orthodox Christian – simply means that you are evangelical Protestant but don’t want to admit it, she informed me that they were studying the Gospel of John and that she had, so far, no difficulty with what had been taught. I asked her, “Have you studied John 6 yet?” When she informed me that they hadn’t gotten that far into the Gospel, I asked her to look in the workbook she had been given in class and see how the following verses that the Lord Jesus had taught in the synagogue at Capernaum were interpreted: “I am the Bread of Life. Amen, Amen, I say to you: if you do not eat the flesh of the Son of Man and drink His blood you have no life in you. Whoever eats my flesh and drinks my blood has eternal life and I will raise him up on the last day. For my flesh is truly food and my blood is truly drink. Whoever eats my flesh and drinks my blood lives in me and I live in him” (John 6:53- 56). She opened up the notebook and, somewhat surprised, said to me, “In here, those passages are interpreted to mean that we should read our Bibles more often.” I asked her: “As an Orthodox Christian, is that what you think those passages refer to?”  “No,” she replied. “Don’t they refer to receiving communion?”

And, of course, that is precisely what they refer to! But most churches claiming to be “non-denominational” do not have the same understanding of these verses because they no longer emphasize the importance of the Eucharist in their worship. Not celebrating the Liturgy, they no longer have the proper context within their faith communities to understand these verses. They no longer stand within the 2,000 year old Tradition of the Church in the same way that we do.

An Orthodox approach to reading the Bible

How to Read the Bible  
But one of the things people often say to me is that they don’t know how to go about beginning to read the Bible. And when they try to read it, they often don't understand what they're reading!

It is a simple fact that people who are picking up the Bible and reading it for the first time will often find it difficult to understand – especially at first. But when you are reading the Bible, emphasize what you do understand, not what you don’t understand, and put what you do understand into practice in your life. For example, much of St. Paul’s Letter to the Romans discusses the sorry state of the human race, the nature of sin, the relationship between Jews and Gentiles, the Law of the Old Testament, Abraham and faith, redemption and the coming of Christ. The first 11 chapters of Romans, the longest and in some ways most theological of St. Paul’s letters, are a compendium of what Christians believe about all these topics and more, and parts of it may be difficult for us to comprehend. But at the beginning of chapter 12, St. Paul switches gears and in essence says, if this is what we believe we must therefore live in this way: “Love others without hypocrisy. Be eager to show respect for one another. Work hard and do not be lazy. Do not be arrogant. Do not think of yourselves as wise. If someone has done you wrong, do not repay him with evil. Never take revenge. Try to do what everyone considers to be good. Do everything possible on your part to live at peace with everyone. Conquer evil by doing good.” These admonitions are simple, clear and straightforward – easy to understand, but much more difficult to put into practice. What we will discover is that as we begin to live what the Scriptures teach by putting into practice what we do understand, the rest of the Bible will often slowly begin to open up to us.

But you might ask: what concrete, practical steps can we take to begin reading the Bible as a spiritual discipline, always seeking Christ with an open mind and heart? Here are seven suggestions on how to begin reading the Bible:  

1.)  We must read the Bible prayerfully. Always pray before you read the Bible that God will help you understand what you are reading in order to put His Word into practice in your daily life.  One possible prayer to use is from the Liturgy of St. John Chrysostom:     The Prayer before the Reading of the Gospel     Loving Master, shine the pure light of Your divine knowledge in our hearts.  Open the eyes of our minds that we may understand the message of Your Gospel. Instill in us reverence for Your blessed commandments, that having conquered our sinful desires, we may pursue a spiritual life, thinking and doing all those things that are pleasing to You. For You, O Christ our God, are the light of our souls and bodies and to You do we offer glory, together with Your Father who is without beginning and Your all-holy, good and life-giving Spirit now and forever and to the ages of ages. Amen.    

2.) Set aside a few minutes every day just for Bible reading – in the morning, afternoon, or before you go to bed—whenever is best for you. Don't say you don't have the time. You can make the time. No excuses! Everybody, no matter how busy, can set aside 5 or 10 minutes each day in order to read the Scriptures.    

3.) Begin reading the Bible by reading those books that are easiest to understand. This means: in the New Testament, begin with the Gospel of Matthew and Luke, focusing on Christ, and then perhaps the First Letter of John. In the Old Testament, begin with the Book of Proverbs and then the Psalms. For first time readers it is generally not advisable to attempt to read the Bible straight through, starting at Genesis and ending with Revelation. Very few people who begin this way get much past the first half of Genesis.    

4.)  Don’t read too much at one time. Concentrating on a few verses and what they mean is far better than skimming through a whole chapter superficially. But if the Bible is totally new to you, you might want to read through a whole book quickly just to get a sense of the whole and then go back and focus on smaller passages.

5.) As you read the Bible, try to focus on what this passage means for us today and how we can actively apply the Bible’s teachings to our lives today. The Bible is not just a history book – it is the record of God’s Word addressed to each of us and our guide for Christian living! As St. Hesychios of Jerusalem wrote in the 4th century, “The words of the Scriptures are written for us not simply to understand them but also to do them.”  

6.) Don’t worry about passages that seem strange to you or that you don’t understand. Ask God to help you to understand them in time. Every Scripture verse has to be understood in terms of its immediate context and in context of the entire Bible and the life of the Church as a whole. Always beware of people who quote a Bible verse in isolation and draw strange conclusions from it.    

7.) The Bible is the Book of the Church. It is the Church, guided by the Holy Spirit that provides the proper context for interpreting the Scriptures, not any one individual (including ourselves). Therefore, in any question of Biblical interpretation, we must seek to learn what the Church teaches about it by consulting the lives and writings of the saints, the texts of our liturgical services, the icons, etc. You may also ask your priest for guidance. “First of all, you must understand this: no prophecy of Scripture is a matter of one’s own interpretation” (2 Peter 1:20)  

Interpreting the Bible  
These last two points are particularly important. We must not only read the Scriptures, but also interpret them correctly. For this, we need guidance. Metropolitan Kallistos Ware writes:

“Coming upon the Ethiopian as he read the Book of Isaiah in the Old Testament in his chariot, Philip the Apostle asked him, "Do you understand what you are reading?" And the Ethiopian answered, "How can I, unless someone guides me?" (Acts 8:30-31). We are all in the position of the Ethiopian. The words of Scripture are not always self- explanatory. God speaks directly to the heart of each one of us as we read our Bible. Scripture reading is a personal dialogue between each one of us and Christ - but we also need guidance. We read the Bible personally, but not as isolated individuals. We read as the members of a family, the family of the Orthodox Catholic Church. When reading Scripture, we say not "I" but "We." We read in communion with all the other members of the Body of Christ, in all parts of the world and in all generations of time. The decisive test and criterion for our understanding of what the Scripture means is the mind of the Church for the Bible is the book of the Church.”

And here it is important to remember that not all Christians interpret the Bible in the same way. There can be, for example, a Protestant interpretation of a passage from the Bible that is completely at odds with how we, as Orthodox Christians, would understand the same passage.  To give a concrete example: I was once discussing, with a parishioner, the “non-denominational” Bible study she was attending at a neighbour’s home. She explained to me that when the group met they were not allowed to discuss the church they attended but were to focus instead solely on reading the Bible. When I expressed my concern that there is no such thing as a “non-denominational” approach to the Bible and that the phrase “non-denominational” – for an Orthodox Christian – simply means that you are evangelical Protestant but don’t want to admit it, she informed me that they were studying the Gospel of John and that she had, so far, no difficulty with what had been taught. I asked her, “Have you studied John 6 yet?” When she informed me that they hadn’t gotten that far into the Gospel, I asked her to look in the workbook she had been given in class and see how the following verses that the Lord Jesus had taught in the synagogue at Capernaum were interpreted: “I am the Bread of Life. Amen, Amen, I say to you: if you do not eat the flesh of the Son of Man and drink His blood you have no life in you. Whoever eats my flesh and drinks my blood has eternal life and I will raise him up on the last day. For my flesh is truly food and my blood is truly drink. Whoever eats my flesh and drinks my blood lives in me and I live in him” (John 6:53- 56). She opened up the notebook and, somewhat surprised, said to me, “In here, those passages are interpreted to mean that we should read our Bibles more often.” I asked her: “As an Orthodox Christian, is that what you think those passages refer to?”  “No,” she replied. “Don’t they refer to receiving communion?”  

And, of course, that is precisely what they refer to! But most churches claiming to be “non-denominational” do not have the same understanding of these verses because they no longer emphasize the importance of the Eucharist in their worship. Not celebrating the Liturgy, they no longer have the proper context within their faith communities to understand these verses. They no longer stand within the 2,000 year old Tradition of the Church in the same way that we do.