Commanded to Come Home
In his book Mere Christianity, the famous Christian apologist C.S. Lewis gave us his description of the new man in Christ. He wrote:
Already the new men are dotted here and there all over the earth. Some...are still hardly recognizable; but others can be recognized. Every now and then one meets them. Their very faces and voices are different from ours: stronger, quieter, happier, more radiant. They begin where most of us leave off. They will not be very much like the idea of "religious people" which you have formed from your general reading. They do not draw attention to themselves. You tend to think you are being kind to them when they are really being kind to you...
Now, here we are, you and I, one year later. How much have you grown in your likeness to God? How much have you become this new man? Or, 365 God-given-days later, have we sadly remained the same-perhaps, more deeply embedded in the fallen ways of the world: still susceptible to ignorance and folly, still giving way to fantasy and wild imagination, still wasting precious time?
Even though we may faithfully attend churches full of truth and grace, why are we not moving more intensely from glory to glory, as Scripture teaches? Rather than becoming more like the God Who created us, why are we becoming more like the demons who provoke us? Could it be that we are not becoming these new men in Christ simply because we do not understand that we are supposed to?
The Holy Orthodox Church teaches us that Salvation (which is to be our greatest concern) is far more than just the forgiveness of our sins, but is, rather, "the genuine renewal of mankind." What does this mean to you and me as we work out our salvation in fear and trembling? First, let's go to the Garden...
Holy Lights Turn Dark
In that beautiful Garden of Eden, where man was placed to grow in the likeness of his Creator, he and the woman who came forth from him enjoyed the paradise of the senses as well as the paradise of the soul. The first couple was placed there to prove their faithfulness to God. God watched them as a loving parent watches his little ones. In that holy and fragrant atmosphere, Adam and Eve were to establish a strong adherence to good. This sanctified goodness would have led them to greater and greater blessings, maximizing for all eternity the enormous potential they possessed. The bliss that filled and nourished their souls was indescribably sublime. It radiated as light from their being for it was nothing less than the Light of God Himself! This bliss, this heavenly radiance, this sweet reality of being created in the Image of the Inexhaustible One was to grow, never to end. Yet, trouble was to come.
At the instigation of the devil, at the seduction of the clever one and his words, the pure stream of their innocence was defiled. With their godliness provoked and their spiritual balance upset, the first man and woman weakened and turned from their holy calling. Once tempted, Adam would have to make a choice either to trust and obey the God Who created him, or to turn toward his own inflamed and attractive reasoning-a reasoning that invited him to be like God, but without Him. Within his mind, heart and soul, man turned toward himself. In this blatant act of disobedience (he had a choice; he could have still repented), in this radical departure from the Holy One Whose Grace protected and preserved him, man cut himself off from the very source of his own being. This could mean only one thing-he would surely die!
In the priestly prayers of St. Basil's Liturgy, we are reminded of the consequence of this disappointing action:
But when he disobeyed you, the True God who had created him, and was led astray by the deceit of the serpent, he was made subject to death through his own transgressions. In your righteous judgment, O God, you exiled him from paradise into this world and returned him to the earth from which he had been taken...
Through Adam and Eve we lost the life of paradise. The world, darkened by sin, was changed From that time on the earth produced a harvest only with much labor. Together with good fruits, weeds began to grow in the fields, animals began to fear man; they became wild and began to hunt for prey. Illnesses, sufferings and death appeared.
Even more, we lost the very close and direct communion we had with our God. He no longer appeared to man visibly, as in Paradise. Man whose glory it was to see God, converse with Him, be nourished by Him, suddenly became as an emptied vessel thrown down, a vessel that once held the most precious treasure of all, God Himself. In that real time and space fall of man, we not only lost the paradise of the garden, but, more sadly, we lost the paradise of the soul.
God Forgives Us
Now God did not want this for us. He did not wish us to be broken and empty, devoid of His sanctifying grace like some beaten-up doll without life. And so, after millennia of darkness and despair, when the time was right, He came-the Captain of our Salvation-to rescue us from this brutal, unending storm; He came to rescue you and me in the very Person of His own Son.
As the new Adam, Jesus assumed the entirety of our sick and fallen nature. He put on our diseased and fallen flesh with all of its sores. In our flesh, He lived a perfect human life. And on the Cross, that Roman tool of execution where they hung Him between the very heaven and earth that He created, He died a human death, totally assuming our disobedience. In this supreme emptying of Himself and the powerful Resurrection that followed, He conquered death! More deeply, He conquered that broken condition of our soul that could no longer find the Light of God. And in this corrective movement of divine love, into our dying humanity, into the soul of man, He poured a new life, a new power. And after bidding His eternal peace to those whom He found trustworthy, His little band of renegades, His disciples, who would soon be introduced to this new power in the coming of His Spirit, He ascended back to Heaven in our glorified humanity, back to His Father, back to our Father.
Do you see how He, as man, restores us to God, as God? Do you see how He takes that which was distant and defeated and renders it restored and resplendent? Do you understand how man and God (in Christ) are united again, as it once was, and is to be? Through this act of perfect love, our Lord opened a new path for all mankind, for He has, indeed, forgiven us. Behold the depth of His forgiveness!
But exactly where is this new path and power to be found and rightly journeyed upon?
God Renews Us
It is found in all of its fullness and glory in the great and holy receptacle that we call the Orthodox Church. She is a reality as true and powerful as Her Head for it is taught and experienced that Jesus Christ and His Church (His Body) are one and the same! Jesus is a real, breathing, flesh and blood man; His Body, you and me, bound together by the unifying radiance of His Divine Being, is also flesh and blood. It is here within this soul-cleansing community where the vision of our inner world is restored. It is here, immersed within her mystical life-which only begins at baptism-where we are slowly and gently raised to the "ascent that never wearies." It is here aboard this Ark of Salvation where the deep spiritual waters poured out upon man are safely and wisely navigated, without error, toward the dawning world of life everlasting. She is in Her essence otherworldly. And through Her, living, transfiguring energies come from God and mystically unleashed to reconciled man (repentant man), She brings fallen man home to the natural reality of his first created beauty. Only in God's Church can we be renewed! Only within Her God-designed boundaries can we truly return home! Anywhere else-no matter how it is labeled or cleverly constructed, no matter how emotionally satisfying or intellectually stimulating it may be-man will remain fallen, scattered and utterly confused, quite distant from the authentic work and journey he is to be on.
God Commands Us to Come Home
The Lord walked among us: as man, He laughed and cried with us; as God, His Fatherly voice called to us. And like no other, His words bestirred within our hearts and souls the distant remnants of a reality lost, a reality He had come to restore.
Now, it is my humble understanding (which I pray is clear and grace-filled), that the whole saving work of Jesus Christ took place for one reason: that our Lord's entire life, from His humble Birth to His glorious Resurrection from the dead, as well as the building of His Church and the sending of the Holy Spirit that fills Her, converges to spotlight before us the shining reality of this one most unmistakable and soul-stirring conclusion-that we are nothing less than creatures who have received the order to become God (St. Basil the Great). And God wants to see this order fulfilled simply because He loves us and wants us back.
Do you understand that we are being summoned from the very throne of our Creator to return home, summoned to fulfill a much higher calling than many of us may have never been taught, or even imagined? After all, it was God Himself Who spoke these words to us: I said, "You are gods, sons of the Most High-all of you" (Psalm 81:6 and John 10:34). And do you understand that if this summons is to be fulfilled, we must first accept the clear and well-spoken diagnosis of His Church-divinely planted as a ready and fully-equipped Hospital-that we are spiritually sick and dying; that we are inauthentic, unnatural beings, no where near what we've been created to be, even after we are dripped and dried of the regenerative waters of our Baptism?
Baptism is simply a door. It is a great and holy door, indeed; yet, it is only the beginning, the entrance that leads to the first, crawling steps of what it means to be newly born in Christ.
And once we embrace our condition as unacceptable and dangerously far from God, tearfully rejoicing in what He has already done, the sweet answer of His grace will start us on our way. We, too, then, will begin our deifying journey home, a journey of vigilant effort that will humble the soul, and bring to it the transfiguring grace of God. At first, it will be a clumsy crawling, but take heart: it will turn to the joyous, skillful running of one who, while on the way, radiates divine glimpses of a heavenly design. Our Holy Tradition is rich in the deep vein of this teaching; we should seek it out. For St. Symeon the New Theologian tells us that-God is not united except with gods.
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It's pretty obvious that, for many, the Christian life ends at baptism. Could this be the reason we remain the same? Now, it's true, there may be growth here and there, brought about by some oppressive situation or sorrow, some gem of instruction, but very seldom due to the voluntary, godly struggle we are encouraged to carry on that would bring transformation and salvation to our souls. And because the greater calling of Psalm 81 is rarely articulated (which would fuel the remnants of our Divine Image), it is unlikely that it will be sought after, and if it is not sought after, it is prophesied that it will be less and less realized: Help, Lord; for there is no longer any that is godly, for the faithful have vanished from among the sons of men (Psalm 12:1). What makes this even more severe and worth our centered attention is the reality of its irreversible and eternal consequences, as well as the fact that there will be no other Christ come to save us. There will be no other God-given time to return home.
I wonder if, for the sake of keeping our people happy, we have not unwittingly reduced the radical call of the Lord-you must lose your life to save it-to a less demanding and more world-pleasing gospel that simply calls us to be good and do the best we can, a soul-numbing, therapeutic message that is not from Jesus at all? And in so doing, have we not blindly forfeited the possibility of our ever finding the Kingdom of God within? The Kingdom of God that Jesus said is within you. The whole of biblical history points to the reality of this Treasure. It is just waiting to be found! Yet, if the hard soil of the heart is not more deeply tilled, and, yes, troubled on occasion, so as to remove the jagged and heavy stones that conceal its majestic presence, it may never be looked for, let alone found.
Let me ask you, have you ever gone treasure hunting? Any treasure hunter, even a beginner, will tell you that if your metal detector alarms you to a treasure nearby, you don't just stand there with your mouth open and stare at the ground. You don't waste your time thinking about it. You grab hold of your pointed shovel and start digging. Only then will you unearth your treasure. But if digging is discouraged because it messes up the ground, or we are led to believe that hidden things will simply emerge on their own-somewhat like night crawlers on a damp, moon-lit evening-then precious things may remain hidden; perhaps, forever. Yet, a clear sign that we are on our way to salvation is that we begin to seek out hidden things (St. Isaac of Syria). And the most precious of these-the Kingdom of God-will not be found until we move some earth, that is, the fallen flesh that stubbornly resists us and stands in our way.
Returning home to God means that we return to the forgotten journey of becoming like God: other divine sons and daughters of the Father, by grace. For it is taught that when God breathed life into the soul of man at his creation-giving him a ray of His divinity (St. Gregory the Theologian)-He made man in communion with Himself, so that man would share the same divine light and life which radiates from His Eternal Being (St. John of Damascus). It is a calling that will require much struggle on our part, a struggle that we call asceticism (some unpracticed in this realm of spiritual athleticism confuse it with monasticism: all are called to struggle). It is a calling that asks you and me to turn from the foolishness of our self, which cannot be trusted, and turn instead to the wisdom and love of God, fully-the very opposite of what Adam and Eve did in the Garden. It is a calling to come out from all that is dark and disobedient regarding His commands and to begin living according to the light of them. This hard work of obedient struggle, of quiet vigilance, will, in time, wear down and ultimately destroy our misdirected and stubborn wills, and safely turn them toward that which is more natural and illuminating to our souls. By centering our lives in Christ rather than our selves, and being found among the faithful whose primary concern is the salvation of their souls, we will begin pulling down from heaven a power so wise that it will transform us now and for all eternity. And we will humbly find within ourselves the inner signs of our becoming these new "spiritual" men and women in Christ:
Everything becomes new, says the Russian Abbot Nikon-the mind, the heart, our wills, our entire condition, even our bodies. The mind of a new (spiritual) man is able to comprehend events which are far off, in the past or even in the future; he is able to see the essence of things and not merely appearances, to see the souls of men, angels and demons, to understand much of the spiritual world (beyond); We have the mind of Christ, says the "spiritual" Apostle Paul (1 Corinthians 2:16).
Salvation is far more than just the forgiveness of our sins; it is the genuine renewal of mankind. Could it be this simple, so evident that you were just unaware of your high calling?
Become the New Man in Christ-Heaven is Waiting!