Post-Modern and Post-Christian Assimilation and Secularization
Fr. Josiah Trenham · May 17, 2011
Sunday of the Paralytic
In the Name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit, One God. Christ is risen! Indeed He is risen! What a marvelous, compassionate Savior we serve, who takes the burdens of those who have suffered long, decades, 38 years, upon Himself and heals them.
Our Savior said two things which strike me profoundly in this Gospel. The first is a question that he poses to the paralytic man. “Do you want to get well?” It’s a backward question to ask a man who’s sitting, trying to get well for 38 years, at least it appeared that way. But it’s a profound question. It’s a question that our nation is facing right now as we’re enslaved to this pathetic, entitlement culture—drowning in it.
We’ve turned our politicians into glorified Santa Clauses, and we have bankrupted our children’s future so that we can have largess for ourselves—the best healthcare, university tuition as a right, unending unemployment insurance, and a house for that matter. And we’re fashioning chains to enslave our own children, our own progeny. It makes me think of Captain Hook, who said, describing the worst form of children we have become, “I want a cookie. I want a party. I want my mommy. I want, I want, I want, me, me, me, my, my, my, now, now, now!”
Lord have mercy. Lord have mercy. I wonder. Do we want to get better? Do we want to get well as a nation? We will find out very soon. We will find out very soon if we want to get well, if we want to recover our dignity, and love our children and our future.
Our Savior also says something rather frightening to the paralytic, after He healed him. He found him and He said, “Cease sinning, lest something worse happen to you.” Oof! I was meditating this week on that statement trying to think what could be worse. Imagine if you were this man. We don’t know if he were a paraplegic, but probably a quadriplegic because he was not sitting up. He was lying on a mat, and he had been that way for 38 years, alone. On top of that, he had missed 38 opportunities to be healed by that much. (snaps fingers)
St. John Chrysostom says in one of his homilies, “The definition of torture is to have the object of your desire before your eyes but never to be able to get it.” This man was looking at the pool. He would see it stir, but before he could get in, it was taken. What could possibly be worse than 38 years of that?
I have two ideas of what our Savior could mean. One is our Savior could mean and could be referring in fact to that teaching that He said, that when an unclean spirit is removed from a man, it’s cast into waterless places, and it wanders there, seeking rest and does not find it. And then it decides to return to its former home, and it brings with it seven more wicked spirits than itself. And it finds that place unoccupied, swept, and put in order, and it enters into the man and the last condition of that man becomes worse than the first.
This is a description of those who play games with repentance and who trivialize religion, who want the grace of God for forgiveness of their sins, and it certainly is here. There is forgiveness for theft. There is forgiveness for adultery. There is forgiveness for murdering and lying. It’s all here, for sure. But those who tinkle with religion and want to take the grace of God, the very serious forgiveness
of God without a corresponding change of life, are those who end up empty.
The demons, cast out by the grace of God, and they have replaced sinfulness with nothing, and their house is empty. And they end up falling back into worse sins and ultimately into what I think could be the second reference our Savior has here, and that is “to Hell itself,” to Gehenna, to the fire that does not die, the worm that is never satisfied. Certainly, that is worse than 38 years of being a quadriplegic. Cease sinning or something worse can happen. God give us strength to amend and to show, by our zealous amendment, how much we appreciate the forgiveness of the Lord God, what it means to us.
But what I really want to talk to you about this morning, from the Gospel, is the subject of the Sabbath Day. You know, this is just a 16 verse pericope that you heard this morning. And in those 16 verses, three times John the Evangelist mentions that it was the Sabbath Day. He wants us to know that—verse 1, verse 9, verse 16. Because Jesus’ healing of this man caused and provoked a great scandal.
The Sabbath Day. You know that the Scriptures teach that a one in seven day observance as a holy day of rest and worship is part of the very fabric of creation. It’s the way God fashioned the world. It is what we would call, in theology, an ordinance of creation or a Creation Ordinance—together with things like marriage between a man and a woman, and labor, work. All of these things exist and our expressed in the very first chapter of Genesis, and they’re at the very heart of what it means to be a human being in any culture. The Sabbath was from the beginning.
The Jewish Sabbath, however, is a different story. The Jewish Sabbath was something that was instituted after Israel had been delivered from pharaoh and the bondage in Egypt. They had not kept, unbroken from the time of Adam, the seven day week. The Egyptians did not keep a seven day week. The Jews did not celebrate a Sabbath. They didn’t know in fact when it was, according to God’s good pleasure.
God appointed the Jewish Sabbath after he had taken his people out of bondage and they were in the wilderness. And they were wandering through those desert waste places, and God told them on the sixth day, as I’ve been feeding you with manna to keep you alive, on the sixth day, I’ll give you a double portion. This is recorded in Exodus 16. And on the sixth day, God gave them a double portion so that they would have enough food to sustain themselves on the seventh day without having to go out and work. This was the specific application of the Jewish Sabbath, and it had very much to do with their deliverance, and the commemoration of their deliverance from pharaohnic bondage.
Listen to Deuteronomy 5:15. This is from Moses’ hand.
You shall remember that you were a slave in the land of Egypt and that the Lord, your God, brought you out of there by a mighty hand and by an outstretched arm. Therefore, the Lord your God commanded you to observe the Sabbath day.
Here you see the Jewish Sabbath and it’s particularity. It had everything to do with Egypt and the Israelites’ deliverance from pharaoh. And when they got together on a Saturday, which was the Sabbath Day, they remembered that. Now come with me from this to the Gospel lesson this morning, because Jesus was scandalizing the Jewish leaders by what He did on the Sabbath Day.
Jesus broke the Jewish rules. He violated the standards of Judaism, and He did it for a reason. He did it both by what He did, by Himself working to heal, and also by what He told the man whom He healed. He said, get up, pick up your bed, carry it, and get out of here. That was a specific offense. You were never allowed to do that, according to the Jewish leaders.
Now why am I telling you this? I’m telling you this because I want you to know something that was at the heart of our existence for the first 300 years of the Church. And it has to do with the Jews in general and what we would call today, the secularization of the Church—being secularized.
The secularization of the Church is the sinful truncation of the Christian faith by its forced conformity to cultural norms. And it’s always been a threat to our way of life. Since it’s always been our goal as Christians to acclimate, to assimilate to the cultures we found ourselves in, as much as our faith would permit—language, dress, jobs, food, whatever it is, we acclimate; we assimilate.
There’s only two areas we don’t assimilate and that is faith and holiness, the faith and the commandments of God. On these, in fact, we can’t assimilate. And this is the threat of assimilation, that in our quest to reach our culture, to what we could call today, to contextualize the Church, we in fact assimilate too much. And we take the norms of our culture and we let that compromise our faith or our way of life.
In the first century after our Savior’s glorious Ascension and after the day of Pentecost, as we announced the good news that our sins had been atoned for and that death had been conquered and that a new life was possible, a freedom, our greatest threat was that we would be relegated simply as another Jewish sect. This is exactly how the Jews described St. Paul. When he was on trial, he was accused of simply being a ringleader of the sect of the Nazarenes.
Most of the first Christians were Jews, and they saw in the Lord Jesus Christ their long-awaited Messiah. The challenge for the Church was this: How do we communicate Christ, faithfully to what he taught us, to the Jews using their language, using the Jewish categories, without in fact losing our faith?
And so you see in the homilies of Saints Peter and Paul in the Acts of the Apostles, the Apostles were using Jewish categories; emphasizing the Old Testament Scriptures in talking to the Jews to show that Jesus was the Messiah; He was the Lord, and especially emphasizing that He was a prophet, which He was and is. The difficulty however is that Jesus cannot adequately be contained by Jewish categories. The new wine of the Gospel cannot rest in the old wineskins of Judaism. Jesus has exploded the categories of Judaism.
All the Judaizing heresies of the first three centuries of the Church, which traumatized us, were attempts to explain Jesus only in Jewish norms. And in fact we see this problem in the Gospel account today. The Pharisees and the Jewish leaders, who are witnessing this miracle, in their minds there were only two possibilities: One is you are a Sabbath keeper. You followed the laws of Moses, that they were the guardians of, and you obeyed the laws of the Jews. The second option is that you are a Sabbath breaker, and you disregard Moses and are repulsive to God.
In their minds, there was no third category. And to deal with Jesus, you needed a third category. They did not have the category, Sabbath transformer. It didn’t exist until He showed up. And when He said, someone greater than the Sabbath is here, they had no idea what to do with Him. He kept talking and they reached down and picked up stones to stone Him for blasphemy, when in fact they were the blasphemers, threatening the Son of God with death.
This is why Christians emphasized for three centuries and are having to do it again today that our Savior did not come to abolish Moses but to fulfill Moses and to transform Moses. All the Jewish concerns about the Sabbath day, about the circumcision, about the dietary regulations, all of those things were negated by the Church. We are not saying that they have no relevance to us, but saying that they have all found their fulfillment in Christ: The Sabbath on the Lord’s Day, circumcision in baptism, and the dietary rules in the fasting of the Church.
This is why Christians don’t keep a single law of Moses, the same way it was kept in the Old Testament. Not a single one. We honor all the 10 Commandments, but we embrace and practice them in a uniquely Christian way—seeing their fulfillment in Christ, understanding their inner core as a matter of the heart, and in a far more ethically demanding way than the Jewish leaders ever conceived of doing.
This is why we cannot communicate our way of life just using Jewish categories, because there are no Jewish categories for our way of life. We keep the 7th Commandment for instance. Do not commit adultery. But what we mean by that is not what Moses meant. Moses meant only sleep with your wives, and if you’re going to divorce her, write a writ of divorce so that you can’t marry her again. It will make you think twice.
Is that how Christians keep the 7th Commandment? Hardly! We keep the 7th Commandment by cherishing chastity; by embracing consecrated celibacy if we can or if it’s God’s calling for us, to enter into a monogamous union with a person of the opposite sex to tough out this life until we die. This is how we live. This is what we think the 7th Commandment means. This is how Jesus has elevated the Christian way of life; transformed Moses’ law, not abolished it but fulfilled it.
With regards to the Sabbath Day, we have passed beyond the Jewish Saturday. And we find unanimously that Christ, having rested in the grave on the Jewish Sabbath, arose not on Saturday but on Sunday—making it the special day of God, what we call in the Scriptures and in the Church, the Lord’s Day, in a similar way that the Jewish Sabbath had been God’s special day in the Old Covenant.
And so our Savior appeared on successive Sundays after the Resurrection. Sunday by Sunday, He appeared to be with His disciples, celebrating the Mystical Supper, and this became the pattern to this day in the Church. We gather to commemorate our redemption, not from Egypt and pharaoh like we’re Jews, but from the greater Egypt and the greater pharaoh (sin and death), which was accomplished on the Lord’s Day.
The Church even calls Sunday the Eighth Day. It’s not even in time. The Resurrection is the Kingdom. Coming to the Liturgy is beyond this earthly life. There are no words or categories in this fallen creation that can describe it.
And so the Church resists, with all the might of Christ which permeates her. She resists secularization, conforming to the cultures around us that we are trying to win. We resisted being conformed to the Jewish context and being relegated as just another Jewish sect. And we still resist those heretical sects today like the Seventh Day Adventists, the Seventh Day Baptists, and those Christians who call themselves Messianic Jews, who want us to keep Saturday as God’s holy day. This is nothing other than the rebirth of Jewish secularization of the early centuries of the Christian Church.
And by the way, just to give yourself geographical feelers, we are in the center, geographically, of that movement in the United States of America. The U.S. is a center as a country. This area is the center in the United States for Judaizing sects. Be illumined!
After we dealt with the Jews, we turned our attention to the Greco-Roman world. We found ourselves swimming in a Hellenic sea, in a Greek world, where Judaism no longer was the threat for secularization but Greek norms, pagan norms, idolatrous norms became normal. And this is why all of the great heresies in the 4th and 5th centuries that we fought, like Arianism, were all designed to make Greek philosophers happy.
Greek philosophy has no category for the uncreated God becoming a creature. It is foolishness, as St. Paul says to the Greeks. Indeed, but it’s the heart of our faith. This is why Arius wanted to suggest that the Son of God was a creature, because it was in step with Greek philosophical norms. It made sense to the pagan community that he, as a priest of Alexandria, was trying to win. But you see brothers and sisters, he was secularizing the Church. He was bowing to low. He was missing those things which can be assimilated and those things which cannot. And he didn’t put the barriers around the faith and holiness that he needed to put to preserve the Church. And so if he had won, and he almost did, there would be no Church.
We resisted conformity to the Hellenic life. We insisted on Christianizing it instead. We didn’t allow ourselves to be just another Greek mystery religion, inasmuch as we also refused to allow ourselves simply to be another Jewish sect. Today, secularization is acknowledged by virtually all of the Holy Patriarchs of the Church as the greatest threat to our very existence. You might Google, “secularization Orthodox Patriarchs,” and see which of our Holy Patriarchs have spoken directly to the issue of secularization.
In this age of globalization, technocracy, and spiritualties, we are seeking to communicate the Gospel to our fellow human beings, our friends, our fellow citizens. And we have to take every opportunity to contextualize. We use websites, podcasts, and media. We engage the culture and much more, but we cannot conform our Christian faith and our moral standards to a post-Christian, post-modern world that does not believe in ultimate truth.
We refuse ourselves to be relegated to simply a popular or good-looking faith. We are The Faith. This is The Truth. We cannot accommodate a culture that does not value chastity and has given up on purity, that does not understand God given genders, that does not perceive obedience to Christ as the means of true freedom, and that despises religion (which has become a bad word), and tradition while embracing a nebulous and anti-ascetic and powerless spirituality.
It’s a very popular word. I’m spiritual, but I’m not religious. No Orthodox would ever say that. Nonsense! The holy Orthodox faith will never be a self-help therapy, nor will we condescend to be, simply, another tool in the toolbox of men and women who are seeking fulfillment and pleasure in this life. We love the Lord God, and we love people too much for that. We stand against every prostituted form of Christian faith, which forms literally fill the religious landscape of our city and nation, entertaining and stimulating a self-centered culture that must be amused to death.
As such, these Christian movements render themselves totally incapable of producing true saints. Blissfully ignorant that this is the case and thinking that they themselves are all saints, because they have never in their life read a single life of a saint or lived in any community that has ever produced one.
The saints of our day and the nitty-gritty work, that you brothers and sisters are doing, of worship and holiness; of forgiveness and patience; of endurance in your marriages, in your families, with your grandkids, this is the real thing. This is the witness that produces conversions to the true faith. This is the evidence of Christ in our midst.
This is our greatest and most singular recommendation to the watching world. To become an Orthodox Christian is your continual struggle; to be a worshipper of the Holy Trinity and to live a life well-pleasing to God, walking according to His commandments.
May our Almighty God preserve us and our Holy Faith in these dangerous times of secularization. May He help us walk as faithful sons and daughters, both to the glory of His name and to the salvation of our souls and to the prosperity of Holy Orthodoxy. To Him be glory and honor forever. Amen.