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Pilgrims from Paradise:
Last time, we came to the end of Abraham’s journey to the promise of God. I hope you listeners followed my suggestion to spend some time meditating on the life of Abraham. One of the great blessings of the Orthodox life is the emphasis that Eastern Christianity puts on meeting God in the people in whom He reveals Himself, rather than just focusing on the theological principles illustrated by their lives.
We rejoice in remembering the saints of God every day, and we experience their presence through the holy icons. The Christ in them shines upon us, and the Christ in us responds. This living communion of love, this experience of the holy community of God, both in heaven and on earth, is the essence of Christianity. So I hope you have come to know Abraham better, and will have a new fellowship with our Holy Father.
But now, it is time to reflect on the lessons we have learned in this series. Remember, the question we have been trying to answer all along is, in the Christian life, what is the proper relationship between faith, imputed righteousness, works of obedience, and the fulfillment of God’s promise of salvation to us?
Life with God begins, for all of us, even as we wander in the darkness of separation from Him. There we are, living in the shadow of Adam and Eve’s choice to reject God. As a result, we are creatures inescapably bound for death. In that miserable state, any relationship with God is an impossibility. But God comes to us with a promise and makes His desires for us known. He offers us salvation, and by salvation, we mean a life of perfect and intimate oneness with God, and with all those who love Him.
This is Jesus’ prayer for all who will believe in him. In John 17:21 he implores his Father, “That they all may be one, as You, Father, are in me, and I in You, that they also may be one in us.” Through his incarnation, death, resurrection, and ascension, Christ accomplishes this salvation. Humanity is raised to heaven. As St. Paul says, the Lord has raised us up together, and made us sit together in the heavenly places, in Christ Jesus (Ephesians 2:6).
To receive what God offers us, we must do exactly as Abraham did when God came to him, promising him a great inheritance of lands and children. We must believe God. We must respond in faith. We must say, “Yes, God, that is how it shall be.” When we do that, God imputes righteousness to us. As we learned, the common Western understanding of righteousness as some sort of thing, some commodity, some substance that God can measure out and give to us, is entirely erroneous. Righteousness is God’s life. So, when God imputes righteousness to us, He reckons us, as a result of our profession of faith, to be willing participants in His existence, in His being.
When we understand that, we recognize that faith is not, as so many Christians see it, an end in itself. God does not want us just to have faith. He does not ask us to believe, simply for believing’s sake. Faith has a larger purpose—the ultimate achieving of oneness with God. The common Protestant/Evangelical notion that salvation comes by faith alone, then, reflects a misunderstanding of what salvation is. We have discussed that numerous times. Salvation is not merely some new legal status with God, that He just declares us to have, when we accept Christ’s death as the covering payment for our sins against Him. No, salvation is a genuine relationship with the Divine person, named Jesus Christ. Salvation is about being so joined in love to him, that we become him. Salvation is Christ living his life through our hearts, minds, and bodies.
Obviously, then, to know salvation requires a real change in us. Jesus Christ is not some collection of theological beliefs that we hold, together with our emotional responses to those beliefs. In terms of the simile we have employed in recent broadcasts, he is a living person, who is right here, waiting for us to dance with him. But, as sinners, resistant to his will, we cannot dance with him. We only know how to dance alone. That means that if God really wants us to become intimately entwined with Him in His holy dance, He cannot just look at us differently. He cannot just pretend we can dance, or declare us to be dancers, when we are really not.
Have you ever tried to dance with someone who said they knew how, but didn’t? It is a dreadful experience. And God will have no part of dreadful. So, He has to actually transform us into dancers. God begins that project with us in Holy Baptism. His Spirit comes to dwell in us, to perform the Divine choreography in us and through us. But we remain free creatures. We must decide, at every moment, whether or not we will let the Spirit have His way. We have to yield to the Spirit. We have to work with the routine, not against it. And that is why faith alone cannot bring us to salvation. Faith can give us an inspired, hopeful glimpse of what the dance will look like when we have finally learned it, when we finally find ourselves moving and flowing in perfect union with the God we love. But between faith’s vision and the actual achieving of that oneness comes a lifetime of obedience.
Hebrew 11, that passage of Scripture known as “the faith chapter,” plainly shows us the necessary partnership between works of obedience and faith. Over and over in that chapter we hear the words, “by faith.” What is interesting, though, is that the words, “by faith,” are almost always followed by the description of some action.
Let me quote some lines to show you what I mean: “By faith Noah prepared an ark”; “By faith, Abraham obeyed when he was called”; “By faith, Abraham offered up Isaac”; “By faith, Moses forsook Egypt”; “By faith, Moses kept the Passover”; “By faith, they [that is, the people of Israel] passed through the Red Sea.” This Scripture tells us that by faith other great men subdued kingdoms, worked righteousness, stopped the mouth of lions, quenched the violence of fire, became valiant in battle, and turned to flight the armies of the aliens.
For over 500 years, Western Christians have been hearing the message that the promise of salvation in Christ comes to us because of our faith alone. But the clear message of Scripture is that faith never stands alone. It is always accompanied by obedience. Without obedience, faith spins its wheels. It is powerless to move. It sees God’s promise from afar, but can never reach it.
So, what does a person do who wants to dance with God, that is, who wants to find his or her faith freed and turned into something alive through proper obedience? Obviously, one has to learn the dance. Where does one go to learn the dance? Well, you have to go where people know the dance. But as we have come to recognize, the Western Christian worlds seems to have forgotten the steps to God’s dance.
Oh, here and there, and from time to time, one may see in the West something that resembles the dance; however, let’s not forget, God’s authentic dance makes those believers who do it, one with God, and just as importantly, and necessarily, one with all other true believers. Jesus tells us that in John 17:21-23. Remember? But even when they find themselves doing something that looks like the divine dance, Western Christians do it as a people broken and divided into thousands of disparate, contradicting denominations and non-denominations.
So one has to ask the obvious question: If the dance that Western Christians do does not accomplish what God’s dance always accomplishes, that is, real unity between believers, can they be doing the right dance?
Just like me, thousands of former Protestants, Evangelicals, Roman Catholics and non-aligned Christians have asked themselves that question in recent years. We have all come to the same conclusion. We have finally admitted to ourselves that the real dance, God’s dance of true oneness, must be found elsewhere, outside of our Western heritage. And thanks be to God, we have all discovered that place where the Divine dance goes on exactly as it has since Jesus first taught it to the apostles. In the Holy Eastern Orthodox Church one finds the dance, and the unity which the dance brings.
To be sure, Satan is always at work trying to disrupt that oneness. And sometimes, Orthodox Christians do not dance so well. But in the halls of Holy Orthodoxy, the music is always playing, and God is always there, waiting for us to join Him. Just come and see.