New Testament Challenge


A blessed Leave-taking (Apodosis) of the Theophany to all! May God manifest his Trinitarian life in the life of each of us!

Philippian Generosity

10 But I rejoiced in the Lord greatly that now at last your care for me has flourished again; though you surely did care, but you lacked opportunity. 11 Not that I speak in regard to need, for I have learned in whatever state I am, to be content: 12 I know how to be abased, and I know how to abound. Everywhere and in all things I have learned both to be full and to be hungry, both to abound and to suffer need. 13 I can do all things through Christ who strengthens me.
14 Nevertheless you have done well that you shared in my distress. 15 Now you Philippians know also that in the beginning of the gospel, when I departed from Macedonia, no church shared with me concerning giving and receiving but you only. 16 For even in Thessalonica you sent aid once and again for my necessities. 17 Not that I seek the gift, but I seek the fruit that abounds to your account. 18 Indeed I have all and abound. I am full, having received from Epaphroditus the things sent from you, a sweet-smelling aroma, an acceptable sacrifice, well pleasing to God. 19 And my God shall supply all your need according to His riches in glory by Christ Jesus. 20 Now to our God and Father be glory forever and ever. Amen.

Greeting and Blessing

21 Greet every saint in Christ Jesus. The brethren who are with me greet you. 22 All the saints greet you, but especially those who are of Caesar’s household.
23 The grace of our Lord Jesus Christ be with you all. Amen.

 Reflections:

 1)      Are we satisfied with whatever state of life God has given us? Are we able to say with St. Paul, “I can do all things through Christ who strengthens me”? Or do we complain when things seem to go badly? If God is present in our lives and if we have committed our whole life to him (as we say in the Divine Liturgy), how would this change our attitude to the way our lives are going?

2)      The gift which the Philippians sent to Paul in Ephesus seems to have been one of many gifts they sent to him in his need. In other words, Paul is praising their spirit of generosity which is a sign of the grace of God in them. How is God calling us to exhibit the grace he has given us by becoming a partner in the sufferings of others? The gift of the Philippians was certainly not just “writing a check”; the money they sent St. Paul was certainly a sacrifice on their part, a gift out of their want rather than out of their abundance. How can we concretely show this same sort of love towards those in need? Not out of our abundance, but in a spirit of self-sacrificial love?

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Our Citizenship in Heaven

17 Brethren, join in following my example, and note those who so walk, as you have us for a pattern. 18 For many walk, of whom I have told you often, and now tell you even weeping, that they are the enemies of the cross of Christ: 19 whose end is destruction, whose god is their belly, and whose glory is in their shame—who set their mind on earthly things. 20 For our citizenship is in heaven, from which we also eagerly wait for the Savior, the Lord Jesus Christ, 21 who will transform our lowly body that it may be conformed to His glorious body, according to the working by which He is able even to subdue all things to Himself.

 Philippians 4

 1 Therefore, my beloved and longed-for brethren, my joy and crown, so stand fast in the Lord, beloved.

Be United, Joyful, and in Prayer

 2 I implore Euodia and I implore Syntyche to be of the same mind in the Lord.

3 And I urge you also, true companion, help these women who labored with me in the gospel, with Clement also, and the rest of my fellow workers, whose names are in the Book of Life.
4 Rejoice in the Lord always. Again I will say, rejoice!
5 Let your gentleness be known to all men. The Lord is at hand.
6 Be anxious for nothing, but in everything by prayer and supplication, with thanksgiving, let your requests be made known to God; 7 and the peace of God, which surpasses all understanding, will guard your hearts and minds through Christ Jesus.

Meditate on These Things

8 Finally, brethren, whatever things are true, whatever things are noble, whatever things are just, whatever things are pure, whatever things are lovely, whatever things are of good report, if there is any virtue and if there is anything praiseworthy—meditate on these things. 9 The things which you learned and received and heard and saw in me, these do, and the God of peace will be with you.

 Reflections:

 1)      Many of the citizens of Philippi were Roman citizens, since Philippi was a Roman colony. Paul is telling the people that, in fact, they are citizens of heaven, which means that, just as they were responsible to bring Roman culture to northern Greece as citizens of Rome, so they also were responsible to bring the culture of heaven to their society as citizens of heaven. We pray this in the Our Father (“They will be done on earth as it is in heaven”). What would we need to do in a practical sense to bring the culture of heaven to our surroundings.

2)      St. Paul calls on the Philippi to rejoice. In antiquity, this would not be an individualistic expression of emotion, but a community celebration. What is the community celebration for the Christian? If you did not answer “the Divine Liturgy”, why do you not think of the Liturgy as the essential celebration of the Christian community. St. Paul talks about this celebration in the context of restoring love and unity between the two women and in the context of the resurrection. How does the Liturgy relate to these two topics?

3)      In a society that emphasizes the hideous, the biting, the sarcastic, the ugly, how can we as Christians keep our minds trained on the beauty of the spiritual life? What should we do when we are confronted with the ugly, death-centered attitude of our society?

All for Christ

 1 Finally, my brethren, rejoice in the Lord. For me to write the same things to you is not tedious, but for you it is safe.
2 Beware of dogs, beware of evil workers, beware of the mutilation! 3 For we are the circumcision, who worship God in the Spirit, rejoice in Christ Jesus, and have no confidence in the flesh, 4 though I also might have confidence in the flesh. If anyone else thinks he may have confidence in the flesh, I more so: 5 circumcised the eighth day, of the stock of Israel, of the tribe of Benjamin, a Hebrew of the Hebrews; concerning the law, a Pharisee; 6 concerning zeal, persecuting the church; concerning the righteousness which is in the law, blameless.
7 But what things were gain to me, these I have counted loss for Christ. 8 Yet indeed I also count all things loss for the excellence of the knowledge of Christ Jesus my Lord, for whom I have suffered the loss of all things, and count them as rubbish, that I may gain Christ 9 and be found in Him, not having my own righteousness, which is from the law, but that which is through faith in Christ, the righteousness which is from God by faith; 10 that I may know Him and the power of His resurrection, and the fellowship of His sufferings, being conformed to His death, 11 if, by any means, I may attain to the resurrection from the dead.

Pressing Toward the Goal

12 Not that I have already attained, or am already perfected; but I press on, that I may lay hold of that for which Christ Jesus has also laid hold of me. 13 Brethren, I do not count myself to have apprehended; but one thing I do, forgetting those things which are behind and reaching forward to those things which are ahead, 14 I press toward the goal for the prize of the upward call of God in Christ Jesus.
15 Therefore let us, as many as are mature, have this mind; and if in anything you think otherwise, God will reveal even this to you. 16 Nevertheless, to the degree that we have already attained, let us walk by the same rule, let us be of the same mind.

 Reflections:

 1)      From N.T. Wright: Paul names various credits which once gave him reason to trust in the flesh (vv. 4-6). The main thing Paul meant by the flesh here (and often in Galatians and Romans) is the pride of physical descent cherished by Jews. As this passage makes clear, he knew all about it from the inside. This had been his pride too. If you emphasized the “flesh” and your identity “according to the flesh,” as he himself had done in his pre-Christian days, then instead of stressing something that made you different from the pagan world around, you were instead stressing that which you had in common with them. You were setting up your Judaism as just another ethnic, geographical, religious and cultural grouping, along with all the other ones in the world.

2)      Orthodox from traditional ethnic backgrounds often see their Orthodoxy in terms of their ethnicity (I am Orthodox because I am Greek/Russian/Albanian/Serbian, etc.) and so take the actual content of the faith for granted. People not of traditional Orthodox ethnic backgrounds who enter the Church later in life often react against this position by de-emphasizing the importance of culture altogether, not realizing that they also bring a culture to the faith. Have you ever fallen into one of these categories? Have you prided yourself on your ethnicity and family connections, or on the lack of these things, making ethnicity or the lack of ethnicity an idol in the place of God? It is important to remember that Faith is always incarnate in people and people always have a culture; Faith is not something separate from our lives, but something that informs and directs our lives. The trouble comes when we think that because we are of certain ethnicity, or because we are not of a certain ethnicity, we are saved. How can we live the proper relationship of faith and culture in our Parish?

3)      Do we count “all things as loss” in order to obtain the excellent knowledge of Christ? We cannot count Christ and some other things as gain. This would mean that Faith in our Lord, in his death and resurrection is simply one of the many compartments of our lives, something we can put on for Sunday morning, and take off again when we get home from Church. Is the excellent knowledge of Christ the one thing needful in our lives? Do we even care if we know Christ, or maybe we have only heard about him from others. Would we be willing to give up everything to have Christ? Or would we be content to give up Christ in order to hold on to other aspects of our lives?

4)      Verse 12 should be sufficient to disprove any idea of an instantaneous moment of salvation. The Christian life is not a one moment “accepting Jesus as my Lord and Savior” and then sitting back being saved. It is a journey and a struggle, with the prize which we can see and taste in the Liturgy, the Banquet of the Kingdom, but which we strive for throughout our lives. Are we still striving? Does the prize mean enough to us to strive for it? We strive for all sorts of goals, at work, in our families, in our social groups, in the Church. Have these goals distracted us from the real and only goal of our lives, the life of the resurrection?

I am taking a little vacation from blogging, but it was suggested that I post the daily New Testament Challenge. During the Feast of the Theophany, we are reading St. Paul’s Epistle to the Philippians. I hope that my readers will respond to the reading and to the reflection questions and begin a dialogue about what St. Paul is conveying to the Philippians and to us. We begin here somewhat “in medias res” but it is probably the most important passage in the whole epistle!

Philippians 2:-18

The Humbled and Exalted Christ

5 Let this mind be in you which was also in Christ Jesus, 6 who, being in the form of God, did not consider it robbery to be equal with God, 7 but made Himself of no reputation, taking the form of a bondservant, and coming in the likeness of men. 8 And being found in appearance as a man, He humbled Himself and became obedient to the point of death, even the death of the cross.

 9 Therefore God also has highly exalted Him and given Him the name which is above every name, 10 that at the name of Jesus every knee should bow, of those in heaven, and of those on earth, and of those under the earth, 11 and that every tongue should confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father.

Light Bearers

 12 Therefore, my beloved, as you have always obeyed, not as in my presence only, but now much more in my absence, work out your own salvation with fear and trembling; 13 for it is God who works in you both to will and to do for His good pleasure.
14 Do all things without complaining and disputing, 15 that you may become blameless and harmless, children of God without fault in the midst of a crooked and perverse generation, among whom you shine as lights in the world, 16 holding fast the word of life, so that I may rejoice in the day of Christ that I have not run in vain or labored in vain.
17 Yes, and if I am being poured out as a drink offering on the sacrifice and service of your faith, I am glad and rejoice with you all. 18 For the same reason you also be glad and rejoice with me.

 Reflections:

 1)      Verses 5-11 is an incredible hymn to the meaning of the Incarnation. The love that God has for us cost him everything, the total pouring out of himself to death itself. Our Lord did not cease being God when he took on our human nature; rather he showed us what is means to be divine—the life of total sacrificial love. How much does our love for God cost us? Do we, in turn, empty ourselves to the point of death (perhaps not physical death, but death to ourselves, to our greed and lusts and hunger for power), or is there an upper limit to the love we are willing to spend?

2)      What do you think Paul means by the image of the cosmic worship of Jesus Christ? Are we willing to join our own voice to that chorus which is celebrating the victory of Christ, or do we add our voices to the anti-chorus which still tries to oppose his universal kingship? What would our world look like if in fact every creature would confess this universal kingship? What would our politics and governments look like? Even though we may not be able to influence the world at that level, we can always influence the part of the world that is in our control. Do we do that, or do we go along with the easier way?

3)      This passage lays a heavy stress on the importance of the “name” of Jesus; the name itself has power and calls for worship. We can join in the cosmic chorus of worship through praying the Jesus Prayer—Lord Jesus Christ, have mercy on me. The prayerful repetition of the name of Jesus will become rooted in our spiritual center and begin to fill our entire life. Let us resolve to pray the Jesus Prayer at least when we get up in the morning and when we go to sleep at night—33 repetitions takes only a few minutes. Gradually the prayer will spread throughout the day.

It might seem strange talking about the Entry of our Lord into Jerusalem just a few weeks before Christmas. But our New Testament Challenge today has us follow with the crowds as they shout their hymns of “Hosanna!” and wave branches in the air. (Mark 11:1-19)

And yet, the stories match perfectly. The theme of Kingship runs throughout all the Gospels, and especially the Gospel of Mark. How could it not? The “good news” that Mark proclaims begins with the Voice from Heaven proclaiming, “This is my beloved son.” In the Old Testament, the king of Israel was the “beloved son” of God.  Our Lord constantly laid claim to the Messianic title through the code of his parables.

As he marches to Jerusalem at the time of the Passover, a celebration (of freedom (like our Independence Day) and the time when the Jews expected the Messiah to take Jerusalem as his own, to mount to the highest point of the Temple and to lead the revolution against the pagan Romans. Passover was always a dangerous time for the ruling Romans, and this Passover was even more tense than usual with the young Rabbi from Galilee who had hinted to his followers about royal pretensions (just yesterday we heard the blind Bartimaeus crying out to him as “the Son of David”!) coming into the city.

The Entrance into Jerusalem

But then it broke. The crowds began to throw their garments on the ground before him (something you would not normally do in the dusty conditions of Palestine) and to wave branches around him. Their cries of welcome to the “coming kingdom” were cries of revolution under the guise of a religious procession.

For anyone who knew recent history, the symbols could not be mistaken. A little more than a hundred years before, they celebrated the purification of the temple by their great liberator Judas Macchabaeus who had defeated the Syrian king Antiochus Epiphanes, and had entered Jerusalem as conqueror and king (2 Maccabees 10:1-9; cf. the same celebration when Judas’ brother Simon enters Jerusalem 1 Maccabees 13:51).

The King was riding into his city; his people were singing hymns of welcome. All was ready for revolution. So when our Lord went to the Temple, he looked around and went back to Bethany where he and the disciples were staying. Nothing. No revolution. No call to kill Romans.  The King seems to have become a tourist.

The crowd just didn’t understand. From the passage we read yesterday, it seems the disciples also still did not understand. They saw our Lord as an earthly king, and they were ready to be his courtiers, to receive the honor of the crowd as the “inner circle”. There was going to be a revolution, but not the revolution the crowd was expecting. The King was going to his enthronement, but that throne would turn out to be the cross, and the royal proclamation would be a piece of wood inscribed with “Jesus of Nazareth, King of the Jews.”

The royal throne had not changed. The new-born King had already been born in a cave-stable for animals in an obscure town in Judea, far away from the royal palace of the man who claimed to be king. His throne then was a manger, a trough for feeding animals, the rough wood already anticipating the cross. And yet, this hidden King received the adoration of the shepherds and the gifts of the Magi. God began overturning all our worldly sensibilities in that cave.

“Where is he who is born King of the Jews?” the Magi asked Herod. From today’s reading we could answer: “He is entering like a victor into his city to go to be enthroned on the wood of the cross.” And through the cross, joy has come to all the world!

I have never made a secret of it: I hate snow! I have never seen anything beautiful about it. It means uncomfortable cold. It is only burdensome and makes doing anything considerably more difficult.

Transfiguration

And yet, unlike things that I do like (like dogs) which get a bad rap in the Scriptures, snow comes out on top. Today’s New Testament Challenge brings us to the top of Mt. Tabor, where we witness, together with Peter, James, and John, our Lord’s transfiguration where “His clothes became shining, exceedingly white, like snow, such as no launderer on earth can whiten them” (Mark 9:3). Yes, when St. Mark was looking for a metaphor in order to express the brilliance of the divine light which shone through the humanity of Christ, he chose snow.

What is it about snow that makes it such a good image for the divine light. For one thing, the whiteness of snow is an active color. It does not float passively by, like the whiteness of clouds. Somehow it reaches out; it blinds you. In other words, the whiteness of snow causes a reaction in you. Your eyes automatically close because of the brightness. The same thing is true of the brilliance of the divine light. You cannot face even a glimmer of this light without having some reaction. The first response is to close our spiritual eyes–the light is too bright for us. But gradually, as we discover the divine light shining out of all sorts of sources, like (OK, I’ll admit it) snow, or the beauty of creation, or the wonder of the human body, or any of the myriad ways in which God reveals his presence through his creation, our eyes become accustomed to the brilliance, and it draws us in more and more to itself.

The scene on the mountain must have been breathtaking! Even in its retelling, the reader can still sense the awesomeness of the event. But, from the perspective of post-Pascha, both St. Mark and we ourselves can see the deeper meaning which the disciples probably missed. They were not witnessing God throwing off the human shell he assumed in order to live with humans. The divine light is shining through and in the very clothes he is wearing. The light of divinity does not destroy what is human; rather is makes that very humanity blaze with divine glory. We are not witnessing so much the revelation of God as the revelation of humanity–our Lord is showing us what it means to be a human being. We only know and understand fallen human nature; that is our entire experience. Only God can see humanity from the divine perspective; only God can know what it really means to be a human being. And so, we see that, if we want to be truly and authentically human, it doesn’t mean the self-absorption and self-aggrandizement taught by our pop psychologists and talk show hosts. It means being filled with the divine light; it means being transformed by the divine light; it means sharing in the divine nature, what the Orthodox call theosis. Only when our nature is united by grace to the divine nature, like Christ, will we become authentically human.

The other important image in this scene is the location. Our Lord takes his disciples up into a mountain. The transfiguration takes place at the top of the mountain, but, in order to get there, there has to be the struggle, the spiritual battles, crossing the narrow ravines and clinging desparately to the sheer cliff overlooking the fall straight down. It’s a difficult and dangerous path, one that pushes us way out of our “comfort zone”. But, then again, our Lord always does that, so that we will put our entire trust in him, that he will lead us safely to the glory at the top. If we only trust in ourselves, we will never make it. The struggle is ours, but the ability to struggle comes from Christ alone.

Who would have ever thought that snow could mean so much!

Today our New Testament Challenge brings us to the heart of the Gospel of Mark. Our Lord throws a question at the disciples and at us, a challenge to our preconceptions:

27 Now Jesus and His disciples went out to the towns of Caesarea Philippi; and on the road He asked His disciples, saying to them, “Who do men say that I am?” 28 So they answered, “John the Baptist; but some say, Elijah; and others, one of the prophets.” 29 He said to them, “But who do you say that I am?” Peter answered and said to Him, “You are the Christ.”

What do people say about Christ? Who is he for most people. We could probably boil the opinions down to three.

Some people think of Jesus as a good man, a great teacher, someone right up there with Buddha, Confucius, and other great religious teachers. He had some great things to say and gave us a wonderful example of a good life style.

Some people think of Jesus as some sort of cosmic spirit, a heavenly Pez dispenser of good things, a vague personification of morality, a supporter of political causes, whether on the right or on the left.

Some people think that Jesus never existed, was invented by the early Christians or by St. Paul, or even was the tranformation of a pagan god like Dionysos or Herakles.

This is the atmosphere that we live and work. Our families, our fellow students or workers probably believe some variation (or even combination) of these beliefs. In fact, many of our Orthodox faithful have bought into a version of these beliefs.

But our Lord’s question rings in our ears like a challenge: Who do YOU say that I am? Where is your faith? Do you even know me? Are you going to decide who I am without ever talking or walking with me?

Peter answers for all the disciples, “You are the Christ,” that is, the Messiah, the Anointed of God. They have finally reached a new level. Our Lord had been teaching them, showing them miracles which revealed the presence of the Kingdom of God breaking into history. And they did not seem to get it. But when our Lord revealed to them that he would suffer and die in Jerusalem, and then rise from the dead, they could not accept it; they were unwilling to take that next step with our Lord. For the disciples, as for all pious Jews of that time, a dead Messiah was no Messiah at all. They had heard about too many men who claimed to be the Messiah and who were put to death by the Romans and their movement came to an abrupt end. They were not ready to adjust their definition of Messiah to include the idea of victory in defeat, of life in death, of the overcoming of death by crashing down the gates of death and empyting the tombs.

Very often we smugly smirk at the scene of poor Peter trying to convince our Lord not to go to his death. We have the advantage of hindsight (always 20/20!); we know the end of the story. And yet, if we had to stand in Peter’s shoes, would we have reacted in the same way, with the same lack of understanding? Do we ourselves really understand the implications of what our Lord is saying? Do we really know who he is, or do we only still have a Sunday School understanding of who he is?

How can we grow beyond that limited understanding? First of all, we need to meet with our Lord, to talk with him, to walk with him, to learn to love and trust him. That is prayer. Have you ever been with someone you love, a spouse or a friend, and just sat together in silence for a while, a silence that speaks far more than words? That is what prayer is like. Our problem with prayer is not that we do not want to do it, but that we think we have to have a constant monologue going. Place yourself in the presence of your Lord, even for a few moments, and just enjoy being with him in silence.

Secondly, we can meet our Lord in the Liturgy and especially in Holy Communion. Our resurrected and living Lord comes in our midst when we gather to celebrate the Divine Liturgy. If we approach the Liturgy as enfolding us in divine love rather than simply an obligation or something that gives us an hour and a half rest from the kids, then our heart will be touched by our Lord, and he will speak to us in the depths of our being.

Who do YOU say that I am? That is the challenge of our Challenge today. And it is the work of a lifetime to begin to approach an answer to the question.

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