What makes an impression on us? We can spend our whole life looking and seeking and trying to become or own the wrong things, things that have no lasting value. Jesus asked the crowds who followed him what they were expecting in St John the Baptist. Why did they go out into the deserts to see him and to hear him? It was a good thing they were interested in St John, but for many of them it was just a matter of having some excitement in their day, it was an opportunity to see someone famous. Many of them were disappointed in him. He wasn’t what they expected.
Jesus Christ himself faced the same crowds of people who had moved on from St John and found in Jesus an even more exciting celebrity. Not only could be be relied on to teach exciting and shocking things, but he very often performed miracles. Yet he did not conform to many people’s expectations. He seemed to be undermining the Law in the minds of the Pharisees and Scribes. He seemed to be causing political risks in the minds of the Hellenists. He wasn’t revolutionary enough in the minds of the Zealots.
Jesus Christ himself asked his Disciples, who do people say I am? And then he asked them directly, who do you say I am? What we think about Jesus will affect our own spiritual path very seriously and significantly, and to a great extent what we are looking for in Jesus Christ and in life with him describes what we think is most important.
Is he really more or less just a teacher or morality? If that is what we think of him then our Discipleship will be no more than adopting certain behaviours. If he really just someone we need to acknowledge as a means of getting to Heaven in the future? Then our Discipleship will be no more than external religious activity. If he is really and truly the Word of God who has come into the world to restore our union with God and to pour out the Holy Spirit on mankind, then we have to take this seriously. Our whole life has to be oriented around this truth that God has entered his own Creation so that we might become united to him.
Lots of things can make an impression on us and seem important enough to set our heart and life on. But the path of Discipleship is established on the foundation of discovering that the man Jesus is the Word of God himself, so that following after him is the most important thing, even the only thing, which must transform every other aspect of our life.
Scripture – Matthew 11
1 When Jesus had finished directing his twelve disciples, he departed from there to teach and preach in their cities. 2 Now when John heard in the prison the works of Christ, he sent two of his disciples 3 and said to him, “Are you he who comes, or should we look for another?” 4 Jesus answered them, “Go and tell John the things which you hear and see: 5 the blind receive their sight, the lame walk, the lepers are cleansed, the deaf hear, the dead are raised up, and the poor have good news preached to them. 6 Blessed is he who finds no occasion for stumbling in me.” 7 As these went their way, Jesus began to say to the multitudes concerning John, “What did you go out into the wilderness to see? A reed shaken by the wind? 8 But what did you go out to see? A man in soft clothing? Behold, those who wear soft clothing are in kings’ houses. 9 But why did you go out? To see a prophet? Yes, I tell you, and much more than a prophet. 10 For this is he, of whom it is written, ‘Behold, I send my messenger before your face, who will prepare your way before you.’ 11 Most certainly I tell you, amongst those who are born of women there has not arisen anyone greater than John the Baptiser; yet he who is least in the Kingdom of Heaven is greater than he. 12 From the days of John the Baptiser until now, the Kingdom of Heaven suffers violence, and the violent take it by force. 13 For all the prophets and the law prophesied until John. 14 If you are willing to receive it, this is Elijah, who is to come. 15 He who has ears to hear, let him hear. 16 “But to what shall I compare this generation? It is like children sitting in the marketplaces, who call to their companions 17 and say, ‘We played the flute for you, and you didn’t dance. We mourned for you, and you didn’t lament.’ 18 For John came neither eating nor drinking, and they say, ‘He has a demon.’ 19 The Son of Man came eating and drinking, and they say, ‘Behold, a gluttonous man and a drunkard, a friend of tax collectors and sinners!’ But wisdom is justified by her children.” 20 Then he began to denounce the cities in which most of his mighty works had been done, because they didn’t repent. 21 “Woe to you, Chorazin! Woe to you, Bethsaida! For if the mighty works had been done in Tyre and Sidon which were done in you, they would have repented long ago in sackcloth and ashes. 22 But I tell you, it will be more tolerable for Tyre and Sidon on the day of judgement than for you. 23 You, Capernaum, who are exalted to heaven, you will go down to Hades. For if the mighty works had been done in Sodom which were done in you, it would have remained until today. 24 But I tell you that it will be more tolerable for the land of Sodom on the day of judgement, than for you.” 25 At that time, Jesus answered, “I thank you, Father, Lord of heaven and earth, that you hid these things from the wise and understanding, and revealed them to infants. 26 Yes, Father, for so it was well-pleasing in your sight. 27 All things have been delivered to me by my Father. No one knows the Son, except the Father; neither does anyone know the Father, except the Son and he to whom the Son desires to reveal him. 28 “Come to me, all you who labour and are heavily burdened, and I will give you rest. 29 Take my yoke upon you and learn from me, for I am gentle and humble in heart; and you will find rest for your souls. 30 For my yoke is easy, and my burden is light.”
From the Fathers
Gregory the Great (540-604 A.D.)
It seems almost as if John did not know the one he had pointed out, as if he did not know whether he was the same person he had proclaimed by prophesying, by baptizing, by pointing him out!
We can resolve this question more quickly if we reflect on the time and order of the events. For when John is standing beside the river Jordan, he declares that this is the Redeemer of the world. But when he has been thrown into jail, he asks whether they were to look for another or whether he had come. This is not because he doubts that he is the Redeemer of the world. John now wants to know whether he who had personally come into the world would also descend personally into the courts of hell. For John had preceded Christ into the world and announced him there. He was now dying and preceding him to the nether world. This is the context in which he asks, “Are you he who is to come, or shall we look for another?” But if he had spoken more fully he might have said, “Since you thought it worthy of yourself to be born for humanity, say whether you will also think it worthy of yourself to die for humanity. In this way I, who have been the herald of your birth, will also be the herald of your death. I will announce your arrival in the nether world as the One who is to come, just as I have already announced it on earth.”
[What does St Gregory mean here? He is referring to the teaching that after his death the Lord Jesus Christ descended in his human soul to Hades, the place of the dead. He destroyed the gates of brass and set free those who had been held captive there. The New Testament speaks of him preaching to the souls of the departed there. St Gregory is commenting that just as St John the Baptist had been the herald and the fore-runner of Christ in life, so being martyred by King Herod, he went ahead of Christ even to Hades and gave the good news that Christ was coming to set the captives free.]
Many of the Fathers of the Church have left detailed spiritual guidance about the life of Orthodox prayer. Evagrius, writing in the fourth century, says,
When the demons see you truly eager to pray, they suggest an imaginary need for various things, and then stir up your remembrance of these things, inciting the intellect to go after them; and when it fails to find them, it becomes very depressed and miserable. And when the intellect is at prayer, the demons keep filling it with the thought of these things, so that it tries to discover more about them and thus loses the fruitfulness of its prayer.This is
This is entirely practical, as so much of their teachings are. It is what really happens. There will be time to consider other such teaching and apply it to ourselves. But for the time being what is useful is to begin to notice how this happens to us when we start to pray so that the demonic forces, seeking to prevent us following the path of Discipleship, can be exposed and better resisted.
When we start to pray, or try to apply ourselves to some spiritual activity, we need to expect and look out for with attention any distraction that immediately appears. It can even be something which is outwardly spiritual and religious itself. We can begin to pray and then the idea will come to our mind that we need to find a book about prayer in our house somewhere, or find the words to a prayer on the internet. And then all at once we are not praying but we are busy doing something else. Over this day and when you turn to prayer, look out for this strategy, be prepared for it, and determine that you will keep doing what you have begun when you pray, and not do anything else until you finish.
1. Be sure to pray the Lord’s Prayer in the morning and evening, with warmth and attention.
2. Prayerfully read Psalm 1 in the morning. This is part of the traditional Coptic Orthodox prayers of the morning.
3. Continue to pray the Jesus Prayer in the morning and evening. But try to increase the number of times you prayerfully repeat the words of the prayer to 25 times in the morning or evening. This will still only take a few minutes but will produce spiritual fruit in time.
4. Read the Gospel again carefully, and listen for the words that come alive by the grace of the Holy Spirit. Write this in your notebook and reflect on them through the day.
5. Do not forget to pray for those on your intercession list in the morning and evening, with warmth of heart and attention.
Baptism has always been understood as the means of entry into the Church. Not as if it was just a religious act that members needed to go through, like filling in a membership form. Rather it does what is necessary in the power of the Holy Spirit to make a new person, a renewed person, in union with God so that they have actually become part of Christ, part of his own Body which is the Church. The Church is not made up of people who like to do religious things, but of those who have been united to Christ by the sacrament of Baptism in the Apostolic Church.
One of the earliest documents outside of the New Testament, the Didache or Teaching of the Twelve Apostles, written in about 70 A.D., speaks about baptism and says,
Concerning baptism, baptise thus: Having first rehearsed all these things, “baptise, in the Name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit,” in running water; but if you have no running water, baptise in other water, and if you cannot in cold, then in warm. But if you have neither, pour water three times on the head “in the Name of the Father, Son and Holy Spirit.” And before the baptism let the baptiser and him who is to be baptised fast, and any others who are able. And you shall bid him who is to be baptised to fast one or two days before.
And in the writings of St Justin Martyr, who wrote in about 150 A.D. a description of the Orthodox Faith to justify the Church before the Emperor, says,
Then they are brought by us where there is water, and are regenerated in the same manner in which we were ourselves regenerated. For, in the name of God, the Father and Lord of the universe, and of our Saviour Jesus Christ, and of the Holy Spirit, they then receive the washing with water.
From the beginning, Baptism was the means of becoming part of the Church. It was never simply a religious act, or even a symbolic ritual, but it was always the means by which God himself, by the Holy Spirit, according to the same words and actions, made each person new, clean, united to himself and a member of his own Body, the Church.