In my last post, I talked about a discovery I made as I began to search for the apostolic Church. I discovered that the lived reality of the Christian faith was vastly different in the modern world than in antiquity. That ancient faith produced some of the most brilliant sermons and exegetical work in the history of Christianity, as well as more martyrs than we even know. Countless men and women gave their lives for Christ in the early centuries of the Church. Most of those martyrs were not intellectuals and academics. Most of them probably couldn’t define the hypostatic union or define theosis but they had a lived reality of the Faith that we seem to lack in the modern world.
So, I began to wonder why their lives were so different, their faith so vital and sincere. For help, I think we only need turn to Holy Scripture. The words of our Lord Jesus are vastly helpful, as well as how He lived while on earth. St. Paul is also critical in explaining all this as well. I’ve had this bouncing around in my head and heart for awhile and wanted to share with you all.
When we read St. Paul’s epistles and examine his life, we see one thing that jumps off the pages of Holy Scripture. St. Paul lived the Christian life with a vigor and passion that most of us do not possess. We see in his writings and life a consistent message that I want us to consider. I want to consider the Christian life through three lenses:
I know, they all three start with a C. It’s my Protestant roots showing with the alliteration. We see, in the life of St. Paul, and if we are Christians, conversion through encounter. Specifically, St. Paul encounters the risen Christ. We find his story in the Acts of the Apostles 9:1-19. For the sake of what I’m trying to say I want to point out a couple of things. Saul (who became known by his Roman name of Paul), didn’t pray a special prayer. He didn’t “invite Jesus into his heart.” He was confronted by the living Christ, fell on his face, and said, “Lord, what will thou have me to do?”
Christ is Lord, whether you believe it or not. He doesn’t need you to “invite Him to be your Lord and Savior.” He already is. Our conversion means we submit to that objective reality. All authority has been given Him in heaven and on earth (Matt. 28:18). He doesn’t need your permission. By the way, nowhere in the entirety of Holy Scripture is the notion of “inviting Jesus into your heart” found. It is an entirely made up construct from the 19th century.
Conversion is something that is done, not just a set of principles you assent to. It is not a system of belief, but a new way of life. It is a continual, life-long process. It is not simply a decision (even though that’s part of it) but an embrace of Another and togetherness with Christ. It is, in fact, the death of one person and the birth of an entirely new person. St. Paul reminds us in 2 Cor. 5:17,
“So then if anyone is in Christ, he is a new creation. The old things passed-away; behold, new things have come-into-being.”
St. Paul says you are literally a new creation, echoing the words of our Lord Jesus that “you must be born again.” (John 3:3) Again, St. Paul says the lived reality of the Christian life is that our old man has died, that we have been crucified with Christ. In Galatians 2:19-20, the Apostle tells us,
“For through the Law I died to the Law in order that I might live to God. I have been crucified-with Christ! And I no longer am living, but Christ is living in me. And what I am now living in the flesh, I am living by faith in the Son of God— the One having loved me and handed Himself over for me.”
It is no longer I who am living but Christ (by the Spirit) lives in me. This is conversion. We turn from our past and the disease of sin (we die to self) and we turn toward our life in Christ and become united to Him. And the promise of Christ to those who do so we find in John 14:23,
“Jesus answered, and said to him: If any one love me, he will keep my word, and my Father will love him, and we will come to him, and will make our abode with him.”
The Father and the Son will come to those who are converted, by the Spirit, and make Their home with us, in us. The Blessed Trinity will live in and through us; They will commune with us. Which brings us to our second lens, communion.
Prayer is the lifeblood, the center of the Christian’s daily life. St. Paul reminds us that we are to,
“Pray without ceasing.” (1 Thess. 5:17)
On the surface, this seems rather hard to do and frankly a silly thing to say. How, precisely, are we to pray without ceasing? We have to work and eat and sleep and spend time with our families. We can’t all be monks and just pray all the time. One practice that has been handed down in the Orthodox Church is what has become known as “The Jesus Prayer,” taken from the parable of the Pharisee and Publican in St. Luke’s gospel. We find it in Luke 18:10-15. The publican prays, “God, be merciful to me, a sinner.” This forms the basis of The Jesus Prayer, which simply says, “Lord Jesus Christ, the Son of God, have mercy on me, a sinner.”
There is a lot of theology packed into that prayer which I won’t take the time to unpack right now. The point is that this prayer, repeated over and over, gives us an idea of the Orthodox way of prayer and a model for praying without ceasing. While the value of physically speaking the words is incalculable, the point is not to just mindlessly repeat words as if they were some sort of magical incantation. The point is the attitude of the heart. First, for our hearts to be properly humble before our Lord Jesus and secondly, for this to be the continual and communal cry and posture of our heart; to pray without ceasing. And when we no longer know what to say, we have the comfort of the promise of Romans 8:26-27,
“Likewise the Spirit helps us in our weakness. For we do not know what to pray for as we ought, but the Spirit himself intercedes for us with groanings too deep for words. And he who searches hearts knows what is the mind of the Spirit, because the Spirit intercedes for the saints according to the will of God.”
The Spirit intercedes for the saints according to the will of God. What sweet comfort! What hope! What a promise!
And so, what is the point? Conversion, communion with and in Christ…for what purpose? Other than the tremendous promises and the realities we have already seen, what is the purpose of our union with Christ?
Some reading this will immediately push back, especially if you are from the West. We don’t like conformity. But this is a good kind of conformity. This is conformity to the perfection of humanity. This is the realization of the return to the perfection of the Garden of Eden, when our first parents walked in the cool of the day with their Creator, in perfect harmony with God and His world. This is what it means to be truly and finally human.
“And we know that for those who love God all things work together for good, for those who are called according to his purpose. For those whom he foreknew he also predestined to be conformed to the image of his Son, in order that he might be the firstborn among many brothers.” (Romans 8:28-29)
For those called according to His purpose. What is His purpose? That we are to be conformed to the image of the Son. Oh, brothers and sisters! Do you see?! This, then, is the lived reality of the Christian life! This is so much better than mere mental assent, so much more than being “good.” We get to be conformed to the image of the second Person of the Holy Trinity, to become like the One in Whom we are. He is the firstborn among many brethren.
Our promise of the lived reality of the Christian life is that we will be like Him. We will be like Christ!
Glory to Jesus Christ!