The Irony of Believing

Irony is probably too much to ask of youth. If I can remember myself in my college years, the most I could muster was sarcasm. Irony required more insight.

There is a deep need for the appreciation of irony to sustain a Christian life. Our world is filled with contradiction. Hypocrisy is ever present even within our own heart. The failures of Church and those who are most closely associated with it can easily crush the hearts of the young and break the hearts of those who are older.

I can think of at least two times in my life that the failures of Church, or its hierarchy, drove me from the ranks of the Church, or what passed for Church at the time. As years have gone by I haven’t seen less that would disappoint or break the heart – indeed the things that troubled me as a young man barely compare with revelations we all have seen in recent years.

No hands are clean. Evangelical, Roman Catholic, Orthodox, Anglican, the failures and coverups are in no way the special province of any. The question of truth remains – but in a contest of the pure, everyone loses. The irony remains. Our failures would not be so poignant if the Kingdom were not so pure. Judas’ betrayal is darkened all the more by the fact that his victim is God Himself.

All of which brings us back to the irony that remains. The greatest irony of all is the God who forgives and remains ever faithful to us despite the contradictions.

When speaking with seekers – those who are asking questions about the Orthodox faith – it’s important early on to be sure that they are not in search of the perfect Church. The One, True Church means something quite distinct from perfect. A good read through Orthodox history (which for a thousand years is just “Church history”) refuses to give up an ideal century – the mark and measure for reform. Any student of the New Testament has to admit that there are no Letters to the Perfect.

From the moment of the resurrection, Christ continues to gather scattered sheep. Betrayal, denial and cowardice were the hallmark of the Church on Good Friday. But from Christ we hear no blame – if only because He never thought us to be other than we are.

Now when he was in Jerusalem at the Passover feast, many believed in his name when they saw the signs which he did; but Jesus did not trust himself to them, because he knew all men and needed no one to bear witness of man; for he himself knew what was in man (John 2:23-25).

And if we are honest with ourselves and know what is in man, then we can only give thanks for the wondrous irony that, knowing all that, Christ gave Himself for us anyway. It is the very character of love.

I have been asked a few times over the years the meaning of St. Paul’s statement that “love bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things” (1 Corinthians 13:7). There is either almost nothing to say about it or far too much to say about it. But it is the irony of the Cross: Love enduring all things. If you know the Cross and the Love that there is crucified then the verse likely needs no explanation. Christ is His own exegesis.

And when I turn myself to the Church (or myself), I can only reach for Christ and the assurance that the contradictions we offer Him will be forgiven. And this is a thought to cling to even in the best of times. For any who would be His disciples, the Cross and its irony is the only path that is ever offered. Glory to His grace!

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25 Responses to “The Irony of Believing”

  1. Mrs. Mutton Says:

    Father, you will never know how much I needed to read this. Thank you.

  2. Andreas Says:

    What she said. Thank you.

  3. practicinghuman Says:

    Any student of the New Testament has to admit that there are no Letters to the Perfect.

    So well-positioned for my ears today. Thank you for calling us to see the ironic nature of the call towards Love.

  4. Pete Says:

    Thank you for clarifying this issue.

    Though I am officially an Evangelical
    Christian, having been baptized 3 weeks
    ago by a Presbyterian pastor, I feel much
    communion with all Christians, (and its
    ironic that I seem to be reading alot of
    Orthodox blogs.)

    My point is that I just identify as a
    sinner, and a poor disciple of Christ.

    What more could I be?

    Pete.

  5. Anna Says:

    Congratulations on your baptism Pete! May God grant you many years.

  6. Fr Christian Mathis Says:

    Thank you for this Father. We need to have coffee again soon. It has been too long!

  7. fatherstephen Says:

    Fr. Christian, absolutely!

  8. David Dickens Says:

    During Holy Week it was so obvious that I was (we all were) the one starting the week with blessings and ending it with, “Crucify Him!” This is the truth of the Truth’s Church.

  9. davidperi Says:

    True vs perfect…thank you for defining the difference.

  10. handmaid leah Says:

    Pete says: “What more could I be?”

    An Orthodox Christian. Though for many of us converts to Christianity this takes time. God bless your journey…

  11. EPG Says:

    “When speaking with seekers – those who are asking questions about the Orthodox faith – it’s important early on to be sure that they are not in search of the perfect Church. The One, True Church means something quite distinct from perfect”

    Thank you, Father. As an inquirer into Orthodoxy, I need to remember this.

  12. Darrell Lahay Says:

    Thank you father, I must admit, even though I have studied, meditated on, and preached about the cross, I cannot seem to ‘do away’ with the irony of it. His grace, to my natural eyes, is foolish. The cross, non logical. And His love, as you said, ironic.As you said, Christ is His own exegesis. Therefore, one can only praise Him with reverence, trembling, and wonder..shalom

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  14. Karen Says:

    “Our failures would not be so poignant if the Kingdom were not so pure.”

    How true this is! Thank you for this mediation, Father. When I read of the failures of those in the Church, it is heartbreaking especially because of the “little ones” who are caused to stumble when those called to protect and upbuild instead exploit the members of the flock. But these are truly my own failures as well. May the Lord deliver us all. When I pray in the Lord’s Prayer, “Thy Kingdom come, Thy will be done on earth as it is in heaven” I am compelled to silently add after “on earth” the words, “and in my own heart.” May the Lord make it so. The following is one of my favorite Scriptures for the hope it inspires:

    “Beloved, now we are children of God; and it has not yet been revealed what we shall be, but we know that when He is revealed, we shall be like Him, for we shall see Him as He is. And everyone who has this hope in Him purifies himself, just as He is pure.” (1 John 3:2-3)

  15. Fr John Bostwick Says:

    This reflection is timely in so many ways. I appreciate the care you put into your blog so very consistently. This entry hits home and will be helpful to many, especially to me.
    Fr John

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  17. Orev Says:

    Thank you, Father. As a very new Orthodox Christian, I think it’s good for me to hear this! I had a taste of this irony after my first Pascha service, when I was surprised to hear someone at the parish luncheon making critical comments about others. After a moment of being taken aback, I almost had to laugh at myself and the irony of the situation.
    I had to remind myself that people are still human, whatever their faith or church, and we all have a long way to go. In retrospect I actually found this person’s comments refreshingly honest. At least she wasn’t cultivating an attitude of false piety. And my own idealism is certainly deserving of a laugh, too!
    I must say, my experience so far of the Orthodox church and its members has been quite positive, but it’s good to be reminded of the imperfections so “newbies” like me don’t cultivate unrealistic expectations of what the Church is like!🙂

    Again, thanks!

  18. Sean Says:

    Father

    that we ourselves are the ones who with our sins crucified Christ and crucify Him now and unto the ages is the most tangible proof of His love and of the fact that we are the exact opposite of perfect. For if we were perfect what need would we have of salvation. After all, He “came to call the sinners, not the righteous, to repentance”… If the Church was not comprised of sinners (in every rank) it would not be Church at all.

  19. Reader John Says:

    Ironically, it is an old Roman Catholic priest’s words that come to mind:”When you finally find that perfect Church just remember that, on the day that you join it, the perfection is gone forever.”

  20. Mrs. Mutton Says:

    Reader John – A lay Catholic said that to me, too, when I mentioned that I was a former Catholic. The saying jarred for years — it just didn’t sound right — till I read somewhere that it originated with Billy Graham, and I realized — for Billy Graham, that works. Protestant churches are based on a man’s interpretation of what Christ has said (Luther, Calvin, Amann, etc.), so yes, those churches will never be perfect. But Christ’s Church cannot be anything less than perfect. The *people* in the Church are not — but the Church that was founded by God can never be anything *but* perfect.

  21. Jerry Cornelius Says:

    “Christ is His own exegesis”- Father Stephen Freeman

    Father Stephen, if Christ is His own exegesis, and the Bible describes him as the Living Word, does that mean Scripture is its own interpreter?

    John 1:14 The Word became flesh and made his dwelling among us. We have seen his glory, the glory of the One and Only, who came from the Father, full of grace and truth.

  22. fatherstephen Says:

    I would say, no. Christ is the interpreter of Scripture. The Scripture is not the same word, per say, as Christ the Logos. We could say it is an “icon” of the Logos. But Christ is the interpreter. In St. John’s gospel, looking at the Greek, it says, “The only begotten who is in the bosom of the Father, he has “declared” him. The word translated “declared” is the word “exegesis.” Christ is the exegesis of the Father. Indeed He exegetes all things.

  23. Jerry Cornelius Says:

    Father Stephen,

    I am very interested in how you have deconstructed the statement that “Scripture is its own interpreter” (Scriptura sacra sui ipsius interpres) and suggested Christ is the interpreter of Scripture and further suggested Scripture could be treated as an “icon” of Scripture.

    I agree Scripture can function as a form of linguistic ‘communicative symbology’, but how does this statement fit into your framwework schematics:

    2 Timothy 3:16a All Scripture is God-breathed

    Which suggests that the Holy Spirit is involved in a form of hermeneutical exegesis in relation to Scripture and this seems to be reinforced by the following statement:

    Ephesians 6:17b the sword of the Spirit, which is the word of God

    If we suggest that Scripture is an ‘Icon’ of Christological [self] exegesis, that tilts Scripture towards human intentionality and if this is the case, where does this statement fit in:

    2 Peter 1:20,21

    20 Above all, you must understand that no prophecy of Scripture came about by the prophet’s own interpretation. 21 For prophecy never had its origin in the will of man, but men spoke from God as they were carried along by the Holy Spirit.

    If Christ “exegetes all things”, then what is the exact nature of the kenotic exchange between Christ and the Spirit in relation to the Exegesis of Scripture?

  24. fatherstephen Says:

    Jerry, you lost me somewhere there. If I said Scripture is an icon of Scripture, I mistyped. Scripture is an icon of Christ – is a way of thinking about how it functions. “Icons do with color what Scripture does with words” the Fathers of the 7th council wrote. Conversely, you could say that Scripture does with words what icons do with colors. There is much to be thought about there – both about Scripture and about icons.

  25. Jerry Cornelius Says:

    Father Stephen,

    Forgive me. I tend to restlessly experiment and push the boundaries of the tolerances of theology, in suiting up and stepping out into the vastness of “out there” – I am going to sum it up like this:

    “One [Cosmonaut] woke to find his crewmate in a space suit
    and asked where he was going. For a walk.

    He had to sleep between him and the air-lock….”

    From ‘Out There’ by Jamie McKendrick.

    Thank you for sleeping across the air-lock – because I am already in part, ‘Out There’…and I would undoubtedly be lost in translation.

    Proverbs 27:17 As iron sharpens iron, so one man sharpens another.

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