The RulekeepersFr. Barnabas Powell
Christ is risen!
It’s so easy to be “one-sided!” You know what I mean – “That idea is so wrong and everyone who thinks that way and acts that way is misguided.” And you may be right about that, BUT, there is also a danger on the other side as well. You can become just as misguided by insisting you’re right as those who are stumbling on the other side. It’s easy to fall into this trap. In fact, it is one of the most common stumbles we humans face. We end up trying to do the right thing for all the wrong reasons.
And make no mistake, that pattern of thinking and doing is as destructive to your spiritual life as lawlessness. Because it is also a form of lawlessness. It puts me beyond the heart-softening disciplines of humility and repentance and it turns those who disagree with me into “enemies.” We have to be attentive enough to our own weaknesses that we avoid falling into this weakness the Fathers called “prelest” or self-righteousness. When we reduce our love for God to mere rule-keeping, we run the risk of forgetting God altogether and focusing only on “following the rules.”
And make no mistake, this is a tough balance to maintain in life. That’s why we are called to be in communion with each other. That’s why we have to regularly practice the spiritual discipline of confession, so we never forget our own spiritual weaknesses and our own desperate need for grace and mercy. When we forget that, we stop offering grace and mercy to others. This is one of the first symptoms of “just follow the rules!”
Look at our lesson today in Acts 15:5-12:
IN THOSE DAYS, some believers who belonged to the party of the Pharisees rose up, and said, “it is necessary to circumcise them, and to charge them to keep the law of Moses.” The apostles and the elders were gathered together to consider this matter. And after there had been much debate, Peter rose and said to them, “Brethren, you know that in the early days God made choice among you, that by my mouth the Gentiles should hear the word of the gospel and believe. And God who knows the heart bore witness to them, giving them the Holy Spirit just as he did to us; and he made no distinction between us and them, but cleansed their hearts by faith. Now therefore why do you make trial of God by putting a yoke upon the neck of the disciples which neither our fathers nor we have been able to bear? But we believe that we shall be saved through the grace of the Lord Jesus, just as they will.” And all the assembly kept silence; and they listened to Barnabas and Paul as they related what signs and wonders God had done through them among the Gentiles.
Here’s the first real crisis in the newly formed Church. And it’s a big one! In fact, this moment we are reading about today is the shift, the “tipping point,” that transfigures the early Church from just one more group of Jews who differ in theology to a Church that will spread through the whole world. In other words, this is a big deal! And it all has to do with identity.
Some said Jesus is a Jewish Messiah and anyone who follows Him has to keep the Jewish Law! Others said that this wasn’t necessary for Gentile converts. Peter has to set up some clear principles to deal with this conflict! After all, he witnessed the first Gentiles becoming Christians when he preached to the Roman Centurion Cornelius and his family. And make no mistake, this shift in thinking is going to change everything for the future of this small group of believers. St. Peter witnessing the conversion of St. Cornelius and his household to the Faith of Jesus is absolutely amazing!
Notice the principle St. Peter declares: “he (meaning the Holy Spirit) made no distinction between us and them, but cleansed their hearts by faith. St. Peter makes it clear: The Gentiles became believers and now you want them to follow the rules set up for us Jews even though we Jews were NEVER able to obey them ourselves! Peter makes it plain that the purpose of the Law of Moses wasn’t to make us follow rules as much as prove to us we will never be able to say to God “I’ve kept all your rules, now You have to let me into heaven.” We ALL need mercy. We ALL need to say moment by moment “Lord, have mercy.” AND we all need to constantly offer our lives, our daily lives, to God and ask for the strength to be Christian, and not just wear “Christian” like some label. After all, the Rules are Good, especially if they reveal to you how much you don’t live up to them and need to have God’s mercy. We should extend that mercy to everyone else as well. And the ability to keep mercy and grace at the center of our message is essential.
But be careful, as I said in the introduction, this balance is hard and that’s a feature, not a bug! It’s difficult because we must never try to escape the hard work of communion and relationship. And that takes patience, love, and mercy with ourselves and with others. That DOES NOT mean ignoring wickedness or “affirming” insanity. But it does mean lovingly directing others to true repentance by practicing true repentance ourselves!
St. Patrick, the hieromartyr, was the Bishop of Prusa. Sometime in the latter part of the 3rd century, he was brought before the Roman Consul of the area, a certain Julius, who desired to persuade Patrick to abandon Christ and worship the gods Julius worshipped. In the area was an area that had some hot springs and they provided great benefits to the community. Julius insisted that the pagan gods were to be thanked for the hot springs and insisted Patrick offer thanks to them. Patrick responded that it was Christ Who should be thanked for the springs because He is the creator of both fire and water, so Jesus was the One to be worshipped for providing the springs to the people. And he told Julius that there was another fire that awaited those who stubbornly refuse to worship Christ. On hearing this Julius had Patrick cast into the hot springs to kill him but the heat killed the soldiers taking Patrick and Patrick was unharmed. Then, Julius, had Patrick beheaded along with several other Christian priests.
Today, do you expect others to keep rules you, yourself, don’t keep? Do you expect that God expects you to make sure the rules are kept by others? Perhaps it’s time to realize I have more than enough to take care of in dealing with my own sins before I can ever judge someone else. It’s only by God’s grace I will ever be Orthodox on Purpose!
P.S. Since the Church has your body as a sacred gem of Jesus Christ, she now rejoices, O blessed Patrick, and with joy, she cries unto you: Through your prayers, O wise Father, all the world is preserved in peace and tranquillity, and it is kept unharmed and unconquered by any heresy.
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