Ten Spiritual Reflections on the Epistles of Saint Paul
(Rev.) David A. Fisher
Now concerning love of the brothers and sisters, you do not need to have anyone write to you, for you yourselves have been taught by God to love one another;
- 1 Thessalonians 4:9
Saint Isaac of Nineveh (c.613-c.700 AD) Asked the “Question: When is a person sure of having arrived at purity? Answer: When that person considers all human beings are good, and no created thing appears impure or defiled. Then a person is truly pure in heart. Love is sweeter than life” (Isaac of Nineveh, Ascetic Treatises, 85).
God teaches us to love one another; it is written on our hearts, lives in our soul, and fills up our mind. Love is never selfish, rather it is selfless, self-giving.
The modern forms of communication and social media allow us to reach out and be in touch with family members, and friends in almost any part of the country or world. This is a time in which we can make contact with old friends, patch up broken relationships, spend time on the phone or on the computer with someone who is alone, or ill. This is a time where families can spend time together, where married couples can rediscover the depths of their bond made before God, and where all of us can spend time in prayer, reading of Scripture, and simply be silent before our Maker and Lord.
To love is to be Christ-like, to be transformed, to reach full stature as the images of God in which we were made. Love always involves knowledge, freedom, and sacrifice. First, knowledge: We can certainly have a general sense of love, such as loving humanity, but love becomes concrete when we have knowledge of the ones we love, when we know their name. Then the person or persons we love cease to be part of general humanity and they become part of ourselves, our lives. Second, freedom: Christ-like love is only truly love where it is freely given and freely received. There is nothing we could have done to add to the majesty of God, and yet he freely took on our way of life in Jesus Christ, and freely offered himself upon the Cross, to set us free, or rather reclaim our freedom lost in sin, which is the illusion of self-love and self-sufficiency. Third, sacrifice: “Greater love has no one than this: to lay down one's life for one's friends” (John 15:13). The greatest symbol of love is the Holy Cross of Jesus, which we are called to take up and follow him. This is Christ-like love, in freedom to give our lives to those we know and cherish. It is the love of spouses, parents, close friends, grandparents, siblings, first responders, and all who follow Christ in laying down their lives for those they love. “Love is sweeter than life.”
Through the prayers of the Holy Mother of God and all the Saints.
“If then you have been raised with Christ, seek the things that are above, where Christ is, seated at the right hand of God. Set your minds on things that are above, not on things that are on earth. For you have died, and your life is hidden with Christ in God. When Christ who is your life appears, then you also will appear with him in glory.” - Colossians 3:1-4
“The life which God gives man is quite different from the life of all other living creatures, in as much as man, although formed from the dust of the earth, is a manifestation of God in the world, a sign of his presence, a trace of his glory… Man has been given a sublime dignity, based on the intimate bond which unites him to his Creator: in man there shines forth a reflection of God himself.” - On The Value And Inviolability Of Human Life - Evangelium Vitae (The Gospel of Life). Pope Saint John Paul II
The Christian affirmation of human dignity is essentially not a question of ethics, morals, or rights. The Church never ceases to remind us that we are made new in Christ; simply put, our identity, nature, and dignity is a question of Being, whose answer lies in the Word who became flesh, Jesus Christ. As St. Paul proclaims our “life is hidden with Christ in God,” not in the futile attempt to define humanity by any other means. We cannot attain moral perfection, we will never collect enough rights to satiate our thirst for total unbridled freedom, we cannot re-fashion ourselves more perfectly than the Creator. No, our lives are hidden with Christ in God, meaning our lives are wrapped in God’s love, and it is the Divine Love that constitutes our identity and dignity.
St. Peter Chrysologus (380-450) eloquently expressed our human dignity as rooted in Christ, he wrote: “He who made man without generation from pure clay made man again and was born from a pure body (Mary). The hand that assumed clay to make our flesh deigned to assume a body for our salvation. That the Creator is in his creature and God is in the flesh bringing dignity to humanity… .” (Sermon 148)
The Pastoral Constitution On The Church In The Modern World - Gaudium Et Spes, of the Second Vatican Council was promulgated by Pope Saint Paul VI on December 7, 1965. It addressed the dignity of human beings in the modern world. In acknowledging our shared humanity, those who have must care for those who have not: “Therefore, there must be made available to all people everything necessary for leading a life truly human, such as food, clothing, and shelter; the right to choose a state of life freely and to found a family, the right to education, to employment…” (paragraph 26)
The Council reminds us that Human Dignity is not merely a concept but a call to action, an integral part of the social doctrine and ministry of the Church. Modern men and women are convinced of the truth not only by words but especially by deeds; the members of Christ’s Body - the Church, must simultaneous preach the message of human dignity and minister to others with Christ-like love. “Coming down to practical and particularly urgent consequences, this council lays stress on reverence for humankind; everyone must consider their every neighbor without exception as another self, taking into account first of all his or her life and the means necessary to living it with dignity, so as not to imitate the rich man who had no concern for the poor man Lazarus.” (paragraph 27)
We are different from the rest of creation, we are creatures transformed by the Spirit, into the image of Christ. As Christians we must not shrink from loving our neighbor, we must not forget the living miracle of the unborn, we must care for the marginalized and forgotten. Why? For when we were still sinners Christ died for us!
For I handed on to you as of first importance what I also received: that Christ died for our sins in accordance with the scriptures; that he was buried; that he was raised on the third day in accordance with the scriptures; that he appeared to Cephas, then to the Twelve. - 1 Corinthians 15:3-5
“in essence, Christianity is not concerned with coming to terms with death, but rather with the victory over it.” - Alexander Schmemann, (1921-1983 AD) priest & professor
What is unique about Christianity? Faith in Jesus Christ is not a philosophical construct, neither is it a formula for transcendental higher knowledge, nor obedience to laws, or a knowledge attainable to a privileged few. Christianity is Apostolic Faith; meaning we have total trust in the witness of the apostles and disciples of Jesus, that he fulfilled the long awaited hope recorded in the Scriptures of the Messiah who would come. We have total trust in this Apostolic Witness, that Jesus more than fulfilled the hope of what the Messiah would accomplish, in that he is the eternal Word made flesh, one of us in all things but sin, and he conquered and broke the bonds of death, for all men and women, so that we might live a new life, with God Our Father, through the gift of the Holy Spirit.
Christianity is about Hope; it is connected to the gift of eternal life, won for us by Christ. When a mother gives birth to her child, she does not say, I brought you into this world to live and then die. No, she says, Lord God protect my child, give them a long life of faith in you, and remember them in your Kingdom. Christian hope transcends the desires of our earthly life, for ultimately to hope is to live, to be remembered, to be renewed.
Christianity is about Love; when he washed the feet of the apostles he gave them an example that the Church is to follow. He told them the one who serves is the leader not the one who is being served; therefore, the last shall be first and the first shall be last. We are to love our neighbor as ourselves, and he showed us that there is no greater love than this; to lay down one’s life for one’s friends, and we are those friends of which he spoke.
If I speak in the tongues of mortals and of angels, but do not have love, I am a noisy gong or a clanging cymbal. And if I have prophetic powers, and understand all mysteries and all knowledge, and if I have all faith, so as to remove mountains, but do not have love, I am nothing. If I give away all my possessions, and if I hand over my body so that I may boast, but do not have love, I gain nothing. - 1 Corinthians 13:1-3
To appreciate the force of Paul’s preaching, we must remind ourselves of the proclamation of 1John 4:8 which states that, God is love. “From the first moments of its historical existence, the Christian Church has proposed a single and unique definition of true existence and life,…it has define God in terms of love” (Christos Yannaras). In being baptized into Christ and anointed in the Holy Spirit, our human nature is transformed and is no longer constituted by the limitations of a created being, rather we are reconstituted by adoption through eternal communion with God. In other words we become “god-like” that is to say beings constituted by “love”. Given this greatest gift in becoming sons and daughters of the Eternal God, there is no other gift that comes even close. If we as Paul points out, are prophets, or speak in tongues, or sacrifice our bodies for martyrdom and do not love, then we gain nothing.
Love is patient; love is kind; love is not envious or boastful or arrogant or rude. It does not insist on its own way; it is not irritable or resentful; it does not rejoice in wrongdoing, but rejoices in the truth. It bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things. - 1Corinthians 13:4-7
Saint Paul instructs what the character of a Christian should be like. Remember he was always in battle against those who wanted the Gentile converts to also embrace the Mosaic Law. He sees no need for them to embrace the character of those who were unable embrace the new life in Christ. To live in Christ is not to live by laws but to live by love. While laws are mean’t to restrict, love is an extension of the freedom of salvation. While laws are for behavior in this world, love is the life of the Kingdom of God. Paul proclaims that the person who has embraced God’s adoption is patient, kind, not arrogant or rude. The person of love rejoices in the truth and bears and endures all things because of it.
Love never ends. But as for prophecies, they will come to an end; as for tongues, they will cease; as for knowledge, it will come to an end. For we know only in part, and we prophesy only in part; but when the complete comes, the partial will come to an end. When I was a child, I spoke like a child, I thought like a child, I reasoned like a child; when I became an adult, I put an end to childish ways. For now we see in a mirror, dimly, but then we will see face to face. Now I know only in part; then I will know fully, even as I have been fully known. And now faith, hope, and love abide, these three; and the greatest of these is love. - 1Corinthians 13:8-13
In the fullness of God’s Kingdom there will be no need for prophecies, tongues, and super intelligence. The things we need in our spiritual infancy here in space and time, will not be needed when we are born fully unto eternal life and communion with the Holy Trinity. For now we live by three principles of Christian life: faith, hope and love. In the Kingdom of God we will not have faith for we will have the fullness of knowledge of God, as Paul said, what we see now in a mirror dimly, then we will see face to face. We will not need hope in God’s Kingdom for the hope we held in this life will be complete. Love will remain, love which constitutes our being in Jesus Christ, we will stand within the Holy of Holies in communion with Eternal Love, the Holy Trinity.
And when you were dead in trespasses and the uncircumcision of your flesh, God made you alive together with him, when he forgave us all our trespasses, - Colossians 2:13
As human beings we often find it very hard to forgive ourselves, or rather to accept that God has forgiven us. As rational beings our actions are not just merely reactions to inborn instincts for self preservation. Remember we are made in the image of God, we are trinitarian; body, soul, and spirit. We are transcendent beings, not made just for this physical world, but even more so for the Kingdom of God. So when we miss the mark as the oldest Scriptural texts define sin; our being is shaken. When our actions do not correspond to our higher calling as God’s images, we realize especially as Christians, the pain of sin.
The late spiritual writer and priest Henri Nouwen (1932-1996) explained the human dilemma of being wounded in this way: “Nobody escapes being wounded. We all are wounded people, whether physically, emotionally, mentally, or spiritually. The main question is not ‘How can we hide our wounds?’ so we don’t have to be embarrassed, but ‘How can we put our woundedness in the service of others?’ When our wounds cease to be a source of shame, and become a source of healing, we have become wounded healers.”
The key point made by Nouwen is that when our wounds cease to be points of shame and become sources of healing; then we can become healers of others who are wounded. How does this transformation happen? When we realize healing does not come from us, healing has been given to us by Christ. As Christians to dwell in the darkness of not forgiving ourselves or others is a denial of the forgiving, saving action of Jesus. Christ freed us from the law as Paul proclaims, the law which exposed our human frailty and failure has been replaced by the love of God poured out upon us in Christ Jesus. As Nouwen wrote: “Jesus is God’s wounded healer: through his wounds we are healed. Jesus’ suffering and death brought joy and life. His humiliation brought glory; his rejection brought a community of love. As followers of Jesus we can also allow our wounds to bring healing to others.”
The saving actions of Jesus created a community of love, the Church. The Church is a hospital for the soul. It is where we confess our sins, reconcile ourselves with God and with our brothers and sisters in Christ. It is where we celebrate and receive the Eucharist; it is a community of wounded healers, not perfect healers, but graced healers, redeemed healers, the People of God.
“The worst prison would be a closed heart” - Pope Saint John Paul II
Let love be sincere; hate what is evil, hold on to what is good; love one another with mutual affection; anticipate one another in showing honor. Do not grow slack in zeal, be fervent in spirit, serve the Lord. Rejoice in hope, endure in affliction, persevere in prayer. Contribute to the needs of the holy ones, exercise hospitality. Bless those who persecute [you], bless and do not curse them. Rejoice with those who rejoice, weep with those who weep. - Romans 12:9-15
The Lord calls us to be sincere and sincerity is born of giving our lives over to the way of the Lord; dying to self as Scripture says. St. Paul speaking to the Romans and to the universal church, tells us not to lose our zeal and to be fervent in our service to the Lord:“Zeal for your house consumes me”(Psalm 69:9).
The prophet Isaiah spoke of the gentleness of the Messiah, and therefore the Christ-like way to which we are called: “A bruised reed he will not break, and a smoldering wick he will not snuff out. In faithfulness he will bring forth justice”(Isaiah 42:3).
Being zealous in imitating the Lord changes us, changes our priorities, transforms our hearts and minds, allows us to distinguish what is essential in our pursuit of being Christ-like, from what is not important. It leads us to pray for those who persecute us, to rejoice with those who rejoice, and to weep with those who weep. It is the way of the Cross, it is the path to the Kingdom of God.
“Man as personality is not part of nature, he has within him the image of God. There is nature in man, but he is not nature. Man is a microcosm and therefore he is not part of the cosmos.” - Nicolas Berdyaev, Slavery and Freedom, 94-95.
“All who have lived according to God still live unto God, though they have departed this life. For this reason, God is called the God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob, since He is the God, not of the dead, but of the living (cf. Mt. 22:32).” - St. Gregory the Theologian
On the contrary, we speak as those approved by God to be entrusted with the gospel. We are not trying to please people but God, who tests our hearts. … And we also thank God continually because, when you received the word of God, which you heard from us, you accepted it not as a human word, but as it actually is, the word of God, which is indeed at work in you who believe. - 1 Thessalonians 2:4-13
The Thessalonians were in many ways Paul’s prize community; as contrasted to the difficulties the Corinthians often gave him. We could say one was the obedient child and the other the mischievous child.
For our spiritual growth we should be attentive to his words that he was not trying to please people but God who tests our hearts. It is a constant challenge in our secular society, to go with the flow of our friends, and acquaintances who may not be seeking the Kingdom with the same fervor that we are, even with all our weaknesses.
The ethics of modern western society are not based upon revealed truth, the Gospel of Christ, and how it has been handed on to us by his Holy Church through the centuries. The ethics of modern secularism are utilitarianism and consequentialism, grounded in extreme individualism. That is to say simply, each man or woman is their own ethical god (individualism), and judgments of right and wrong are not objective but relative (utilitarianism), given the immediate consequences (consequentialism).
As Paul says to the Thessalonians he says to us, that we have heard the word of God, accepted it as God’s word, and it is at work within us. It is not always easy, it may at times mean we are shunned by the crowd; but it never ceases to save!
Paul, Silvanus, and Timothy to the church of the Thessalonians in God the Father and the Lord Jesus Christ: grace to you and peace.
We give thanks to God always for all of you, remembering you in our prayers, unceasingly calling to mind your work of faith and labor of love and endurance in hope of our Lord Jesus Christ, before our God and Father, knowing, brothers loved by God, how you were chosen. For our gospel did not come to you in word alone, but also in power and in the holy Spirit and [with] much conviction. You know what sort of people we were [among] you for your sake. …For they themselves openly declare about us what sort of reception we had among you, and how you turned to God from idols to serve the living and true God and to await his Son from heaven, whom he raised from [the] dead, Jesus, who delivers us from the coming wrath. - 1 Thessalonians 1:1-5, 9-10
Paul rejoices in the way the Thessalonians in their work of faith, labor of love, and endurance in hope, have embraced the Lord Jesus Christ. Responding as they have to their calling to new life in Christ.
We are accustomed to the sequence or faith, hope, and love, but here Paul wants to emphasize that faith and love are expressed in our eschatological hope. This eschatological hope, Paul tells them is realized in turning from false idols and serving the living and true God as we await the Kingdom of Heaven.
We must be very careful in our secular world of many false idols, propagated by the religion of social and mass media; to fall into the trap of indifference for the truth. There is only one person who delivers us, there is only one person who by death destroyed death, there is only one person who allows us to live in the Holy Spirit, there is only one person who shows us the Father; Jesus Christ, to Him be glory forever!
“What we love we shall grow to resemble.” - St. Bernard of Clairvaux, 1090-1153 AD