Monthly Archives: July 2016

The Creed – Part 14B

“… And He was crucified for us under Pontius Pilate and suffered and was buried.”

Jesus came into the world to save us and He knew that meant he would suffer and die. Jesus, although He had a genuine human body, was not subject to death because he was sinless. He allowed Himself to die to save us. We should remember that false teachers arose in the church who said that Jesus only appeared to suffer and die but in reality He did not suffer. This is actually similar to the Moslem view of Jesus’ death. The Moslems cannot believe that a prophet like Jesus could die on the cross. Some Moslems believe that God gave another person the appearance of Jesus and he died in Jesus’ place. There are other theories but they come down to the refusal to believe that Jesus actually suffered. But the Church knew from the beginning that His suffering and death were real and opposed that false teaching.
Jesus’ suffering and death were part of God’s plan from the beginning and it was prophesied in the book of Isaiah. In chapter Isaiah 53:3-5 we read
“He was despised and rejected by men; a man of sorrows, and acquainted with grief; and as one from whom men hide their faces he was despised, and we esteemed him not. Surely he has borne our griefs and carried our sorrows; yet we esteemed him stricken, smitten by God, and afflicted. But he was wounded for our transgressions, he was bruised for our iniquities; upon him was the chastisement that made us whole, and with his stripes we are healed.”
Scholars and church fathers alike believed that Jesus knew he was fulfilling this prophecy. It must be admitted that the Jewish people do not believe this passage is a prophecy about the Messiah because they do not believe that the Messiah would suffer. The book of Deuteronomy in the Old Testament says
“…his body shall not remain all night upon the tree, but you shall bury him the same day, for a hanged man is accursed by God; you shall not defile your land which the Lord your God gives you for an inheritance   (Deuteronomy 21:23)
This is quoted in the New Testament
‘…Christ redeemed us from the curse of the law, having become a curse for us — for it is written, “Cursed be everyone who hangs on a tree”  (Gal 3:13).
Both passages express the Jewish view that a crucified man could not be the Messiah. However, we as Christians affirm that Jesus’ suffering and death were part of God’s plan for the redemption of the human race. Jesus’ suffering was predicted to the Virgin Mary when she and Joseph presented Jesus in the temple. The elder Simeon said
“…and Simeon blessed them and said to Mary his mother, “Behold, this child is set for the fall and rising of many in Israel, and for a sign that is spoken against (and a sword will pierce through your own soul also), that thoughts out of many hearts may be revealed.” (Luke 2:34-35).
Jesus Himself knew he would suffer and predicted it to his apostles. For example
As they were gathering in Galilee, Jesus said to them, “The Son of man is to be delivered into the hands of men, and they will kill him, and he will be raised on the third day.” And they were greatly distressed.” Mt 17:22-23
And
“… for he was teaching his disciples, saying to them, ‘The Son of man will be delivered into the hands of men, and they will kill him; and when he is killed, after three days he will rise.’ But they did not understand the saying, and they were afraid to ask him. “ (Mark 9:31-32)
However, no matter how many times He predicted His suffering and death the apostles did not really accept this until the resurrection. At one point the apostle James and John asked Jesus for positions of power in the Kingdom they thought He was going to establish. Jesus asked
“But Jesus said to them, ‘You do not know what you are asking. Are you able to drink the cup that I drink, or to be baptized with the baptism with which I am baptized?’ And they said to him, “We are able.” And Jesus said to them, “The cup that I drink you will drink; and with the baptism with which I am baptized, you will be baptized;…( Mark 10:38-39).
The cup and baptism, of course, refer to Jesus’ suffering and death, but the apostles did not understand that at that time. Finally we should look at the agony in the garden when Jesus prayed before his arrest. In Matthew 26:38-19 we read:
Then he said to them, “My soul is very sorrowful, even to death; remain here, and watch with me.” And going a little farther he fell on his face and prayed, “My Father, if it be possible, let this cup pass from me; nevertheless, not as I will, but as thou wilt.”
In other words, although Jesus Christ is the Son of God who suffered voluntarily in His humanity, He knew the pain he would endure and prayed that God the Father would strengthen Him. So we know that we are saved by Christ’s suffering and death “He himself bore our sins in his body on the tree, that we might die to sin and live to righteousness. By his wounds you have been healed.”  (I Peter 2:24), a death that conquered death and gives us eternal life.

Fr. John

The Creed – Part 14A

“… And He was crucified for us under Pontius Pilate and suffered and was buried.”

Who was Pontius Pilate? He was a Roman bureaucrat, procurator (governor) of the Roman province of Judea at the time of Christ. He was a mid-level official and had a lackluster career. The question becomes “why is this Roman bureaucrat in the Creed”? After all, the Creed is a precise, elegant statement of Orthodox dogma. The reason he is in the Creed is to anchor our faith in history. In other words, Christianity is rooted in history in a way other religions are not. For example, Buddhism teaches an eight-fold path to reach enlightenment. According to Buddhists, if one follows this path one will be enlightened. In other words, the important thing in Buddhism is the path. The truth or falsehood of Buddhism does not depend on the details of Buddha’s life.
Things are otherwise in Christianity. Much of the ethical teaching of Jesus can be found in Jewish or pagan sources. What is most important for Christianity depends on who Christ is. When we say that Christianity (and Judaism before it) we mean that God acted, intervened in historical events. For example, after the fall of Adam and Eve, God chose Abraham to make his covenant with, promising Abraham and his descendants God’s special care if they obeyed His commandments. Centuries later when Moses led the Jewish people out of the slavery of Egypt, he gave them the Law and a covenant on Mount Sinai. In the centuries following Moses, God sent prophets to the Jewish people telling them that the Messiah was coming and they should prepare for his coming by following the Law. Of course, we as Christians affirm that Jesus Christ is that promised Messiah. The history of salvation reaches its fulfilment in Jesus Christ. As important as Jesus’ teaching is, our faith and salvation depends on the historical truth of the Gospel narratives. More particularly, acted in the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ. In his resurrection Jesus fundamentally overcame the power of sin, death and the devil, giving eternal life to those who follow him. The point is, if Jesus Christ did not really dies and rise again our faith is meaningless. As Saint Paul writes: “If Christ has not been raised, your faith is futile and you are still in your sins.” (1 Cor 15:17) This is why Christian (and other) scholars study the New Testament from the historical point of view. If one is not used to reading historical criticism one may be shocked by the scholarly approach to the Gospels, but the fact of the matter is that after centuries of intense study of literally every word in the Gospel, historical criticism has found nothing that would undermine our faith. Sometimes when one reads or hears skeptical scholars in the popular media, one might find them criticizing the historical basis of the Gospel, especially of the resurrection. However, the substance of their conclusions comes down to a simple refusal to believe that God can act in history. If one does not have this preconceived bias, the historical truth of Christ’s resurrection is quite clear.
The inclusion of Pontius Pilate in our Creed is a reminder for all time that God decisively, in a small corner of the Roman Empire, was the place of God’s supreme act in history of the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ.

Fr. John

The Creed – Part 13B

“… And He was incarnate of the Holy Spirit and the Virgin Mary…”

Let us look at the role of the Theotokos and the Holy Spirit. Before talking about the role of the Theotokos in the incarnation, let us take something of a detour. One of the great debates in Western Christianity is over whether a person is saved by good works or by faith. The alleged Catholic position is that one is saved by good works. The more rosaries one says, the more one venerates a relic or goes on pilgrimages, the better one’s chances of getting into heaven. At the time of the Protestant Reformation one of the major disagreements was about indulgences. At that time one would purchase an indulgence and be saved from hell. Of course, actual Catholic theology says for the indulgence to ‘work’ one had to go to confession, receive Holy Communion and be in a state of grace. However, many people thought of an indulgence as a kind of magical ‘get out of hell card”. The Protestants revolted against this. They said that one is saved by faith alone. In other words, when one ‘accepts Jesus Christ as one’s Lord and Savior’ one is saved without any good works. Of course, good works are expected to flow from one’s experience of being saved, but they do not contribute to a person’s salvation.
This debate has never affected the Orthodox Church. The Orthodox Church has never separated faith from works. The Orthodox position is known as synergy. This comes from two Greek words: syn (together with) and energy (work). This doctrine is found in 2 Corinthians 6:1. It means that human beings and God cooperate in the work of salvation. Of course, God does infinitely more than human beings do, but both are needed.
This bring us back to the Theotokos. If we read the story of Christ’s birth in the first chapter of St. Luke’s Gospel, we see the Angel Gabriel appearing to the Virgin Mary and announcing that she will become the mother of the Messiah. She is puzzled because according to tradition, she has made a vow of celibacy. However, when the angel tells her that he will be born of her and the Holy Spirit she consents. She says, “Behold, I am the handmaid of the Lord; let it be to me according to your word.” (Lk 1:38). In other words, she freely accepts to become the mother of the Savior. This was an act of free will on her part. In fact, she could have said ‘no’, unlikely as this may be.
The point is that a human being is freely working together with God and God will never override our free will but always waits for us to turn to Him. So, the story of the Annunciation is one of human freedom. In a sense the Virgin Mary is undoing Eve’s disobedience.
When the Angel Gabriel is explaining to the Virgin Mary what is going to happen he says, “The Holy Spirit will come upon you, and the power of the Most High will overshadow you; therefore the child to be born will be called holy, the Son of God.” (Lk 1:35) Here is seen a reference to the Holy Spirit in the Old Testament. In Genesis 1 it says that …”the Spirit of God was moving over the face of the waters.” (Gen 1:2) Just as the Holy Spirit moved over the waters at the creation, he is overshadowing the Virgin Mary in the re-creation of humanity and the world.
Ultimately what all this tells us is that when human beings choose to cooperate and work together with God, nothing is impossible.

Fr. John