Christian Spirituality in a Changing World – His Holiness Pope Shenouda III
A talk given by His Holiness Pope Shenouda III,
Pope of Alexandria and Patriarch of the Apostolic See of St. Mark,,br> at Saint Pancras Church, London, on Saturday, 24th September 1994.
[Transcribed from a tape]
I wish to thank you for inviting me to give a lecture in this holy church. I have been asked to speak about Christian Spirituality in a changing world. First we want to know what is spirituality and what is Christian spirituality.
In the beginning God created man in His image and in His likeness (Genesis I : 26). When mankind sinned he lost his divine dignity, he lost his divine image, and spirituality was to enable him return to the divine image. Christian spirituality is a returning to the divine image. It is quite well known that a spiritual man should walk according to the Spirit, not according to the flesh. The flesh or the body was not evil, was not a defiled thing. If the body was evil God would not have created an evil thing and if the body was evil our Lord Christ would not have been incarnated. And if the body is evil there would not be resurrection. If the body is evil we would not respect the relics of the saints, but after the Fall there began a struggle between body and spirit. As Saint Paul said in his Epistle to the Galatians (V : 16-17) :
For the flesh lusteth against the Spirit, and the Spirit against the flesh : and these are contrary the one to the other.
What than is spirituality ?
Spirituality in a few words is this : the body should be led by the spirit and the human spirit should be led by the Spirit of God. This is spirituality. But the body which is not led by the Spirit of God is a corrupted body. We can read a few words here in the Epistle to the Romans. Saint Paul says,
There is therefore now no condemnation to them which are in Christ Jesus, who walk not after the flesh, but after the Spirit (VIII: 1)
and he says also,
For they that are after the flesh do mind the things of the flesh; but they that are after the Spirit the things of the Spirit (VIII : 5)
and again, he says,
To be carnally minded is death; but to be spiritually minded is life and peace (VIII : 6).
So a spiritual life should not be working according to the flesh and the lusts of the flesh.
Once a person asked me, ‘What is the difference between love and lust ?’ and I said to him that love wants always to give, but lust wants always to take, to have. For this reason the lust of the body is a great sin. Why ? Saint Paul says,
Know ye not that ye are the temple of God (1 Corinthians III : 16)
He who corrupts his body is corrupting the temple of God. For this reason the sin of fornication or of homosexuality is a very serious sin. A person may sin against himself and against another person and both of them sin against the temple of God and cast away the Holy Spirit from their hearts. So how many sins are there ?
The body may sin and also the spirit may sin. The spirit in its nature is pure, but sometimes it sins. How ? For example, the devils. The devils are spirits and they sin. Pride is a sin of the spirit. Vainglory is a sin of the spirit. Hatred also is another sin of the spirit. It was said that the Devil is a liar (John VIII : 44). This also is a sin of the spirit. For all these reasons God wanted to purify and cleanse the body and the spirit together. How ? Through salvation, through baptism, through faith, through the holy chrisma : the Spirit of God dwells in the heart of mankind. The Spirit of God is working in our hearts but we should have a response to the work of the Spirit of God. The Spirit of God may work in us and for us and through us, but we should have a response. We should walk according to the guidance of the Spirit of God. May we say that we are sons of God and pray saying, ‘Our Father Who art in heaven …’ ? There is a very nice verse in the Epistle to the Romans saying that those who are led by the Spirit of God, are the sons of God (VIII : 14).
We cannot have a false name declaring that we are sons of God while we don’t behave as sons. The last verse (29) of the First Epistle of John, chapter 2 says,
If ye know that He is righteous, ye know that every one that doeth righteousness is born of Him.
That means we cannot have a false name saying that we are sons of God while we are not obeying Him and we are not walking in His ways. For this reason Saint John says,
Whosoever is born of God doth not commit sin; for His seed remaineth in him : and he cannot sin, because he is born of God (1 John III : 9)
To be born of God means that you cannot sin, not only that you do not sin but you cannot sin because you are the son of God. And he repeats the same words in chapter 5 of his First Epistle (verse 18)
Whosoever is born of God sinneth not.
For this reason He says that the children of God are manifest and the children of the Devil are manifest (1 John III : 10) because you know them by their fruits (Matthew VII : 16). Every tree may be known by its fruits. What is the fruit of your life ? Is it the fruit of the Spirit or not ?
Then what is the way or the method to live a spiritual life ?
The first step is repentance. The first step in the life of God is repentance. Our Lord God says in the Gospel of Luke (XIII : 3 & 5) that if you cannot repent you will perish. Repentance is the door of life, of returning to God or returning to the divine image, but what is repentance ? Repentance doesn’t mean not to commit sin any longer, because a person may not commit sin but he loves sin in his heart. Perhaps he doesn’t commit sin because he is afraid of the results or because he is afraid of shame or of any danger, or of punishment. But the real repentance is to hate sin. If we hate sin you cannot do it, because it will not be desirable to you, it will be against your will and against your nature. This is repentance.
Repentance is returning to God. It is to be reconciled with God once more, to be transferred from this obedience to obey the commandment of God. Our great teacher, Saint Paul, says in his Epistle to the Hebrews, when he is rebuking them,
Ye have not yet resisted unto blood, striving against sin (XII : 4)
That means that you use all your strength, all your power, even if there is blood shed, to struggle against sin.
Why does the apostle say that the flesh lusts against the spirit and the spirit lusts against the flesh ? This is for beginners, but for people who are perfect there is no conflict between body and spirit. Both are walking in the ways of God. Also repentance is not sufficient, because repentance may give an idea of the negative way, but we should work in the positive way. How ?
How to live a spiritual life; to practice all spiritual means, to practice prayer, contemplation, reading the Bible, attending spiritual meetings, confession, the Holy Eucharist, Holy Communion, in order that your spirit may be fed with these spiritual means. There is a good verse in the First Epistle of Saint Peter (III : 4). He is speaking about the beauty of a gentle and a quiet spirit and in the Book of the Song of Songs it is written,
Who is this that cometh out of the wilderness like pillars of smoke (III : 6)
We mean by ‘pillars of smoke’ when we put grains of incense and the incense becomes as smoke, pillars of smoke going up to heaven, ‘perfumed with myrrh and frankincense’ with all the mentioned fragrant powders; a spirit which has a good smell, a spiritual smell in front of God. Is this sufficient ?
When God created man, man was given a blessing and also authority, but when man sinned he lost his blessing and he lost his authority. Man had authority even in the company of beasts and they didn’t harm him because he had authority. All of creation was under his obedience, but he lost his dignity when he sinned and he lost the blessing.
When a man returns to spiritual life he may return to his blessing and to his authority and he should also grow up in the life of the Spirit. Until what ? Until he reaches holiness – holiness of life – because believers in the apostolic age were called saints. Saint Paul sent letters to the saints of Ephesus (I : 1). He also says,
Salute every saint in Christ Jesus (Philippians IV : 21)
All of them were saints living the holy life because God said ‘Be holy as I am holy’ (1 Peter I : 16). Repentance is the first step; growing up in the spiritual life is the second; and a holy life is the third step. Are there any more ?
Yes, there is something more; more than holiness, and that is perfection. How to be perfect even in holiness ? How to grow up until you reach the degree of perfection, because our Lord Jesus Christ said in His Sermon on the Mount,
Be ye therefore perfect, even as your Father which is in heaven is perfect (Matthew V : 48)
Not only to repent, not only to walk in the spiritual way, not only to grow up, not only to be a holy person, but also to be perfect in holiness. This is Christian spirituality. And how to do it : through the help of the Holy Spirit.
You, as a human person may be weak, but being helped by the Holy Spirit you will be strong enough. For this reason the apostle says,
Be filled with the Spirit (Ephesians V : 18).
I wish to read another verse also. In Ephesians III : 19,
To know the love of Christ, which passeth knowledge, that ye might be filled with all the fulness of God.
I was surprised when I read this verse for the first time. to be ‘filled with all the fulness of God’. That means to be filled with the Holy Spirit completely, totally, in such a way that you will have the deepest love of God. To love God with all your heart, with all your mind, with all your power and soul, this was not only a commandment written in Matthew XXII : 37, but it was a commandment in the Old Testament, written in Deuteronomy VI : 5. To love God with all your heart. How ?
Can’t you have room for another person or another thing. You may have that but you love all others inside the love of God. You may love anything, but not in contradiction with the love of God. The love of God will be the first and all and any other love may be inside the love of God. You love your father, but inside the love of God. The commandment of God was to love your parents in God, not against, nor outside the love of God. You will be filled with the Spirit and in such a way that your life will be a spiritual life and your wishes and desires will be spiritual. Your means or methods will be spiritual. Your prayer will be a spiritual prayer; your ministry in the Church will be a spiritual ministry : not only activity, not only knowledge, but spiritual. This is Christian spirituality.
Having the Spirit of God in you, this is the communion of the Holy Spirit. For this reason, when we bless the people we say, ‘the love of God the Father, the grace of His Only-Begotten Son and the communion of the Holy Spirit’. What is the communion of the Holy Spirit ?
This means that you work with the Holy Spirit and the Holy Spirit works with you. Then you may check your work : is it the work of the Holy Spirit in you or is it a personal work, or is it against the Holy Spirit ? If you have the Holy Spirit in you, then you become the temple of the Holy Spirit. You become a small church. Everyone is a church, is a temple. As a church is consecrated with the Holy Myron or the Holy Chrism, you also after your baptism were consecrated with the holy oil and the Holy Chrism. As the church is the house of God, you are the house of God also and God dwells in your heart, dwells in your mind. This is the work of the Spirit. Then you should have the fruit of the Spirit. The fruits of the Spirit are written in the Epistle to the Galatians V, 22-23, beginning with love, joy, peace, meekness and so on.
There was a nice verse in the Book of Judges (XIII : 25) about Samson where it was said that the Spirit of God was moving him from one city to another before his sin. When you have the Holy Spirit in you, you’ll not speak from your own spirit but as our Lord Jesus Christ said to His disciples :
For it is not ye who speak, but the Spirit of your Father which speaketh in you (Matthew X : 20)
You can check yourself when you speak, is this word your own word or is God speaking in your mouth or from your mouth ? This is Christian spirituality. All your words will be the work of the Spirit of God in you and by you and in such a way that you will have power and strength. Our Lord Jesus Christ said to the disciples,
Ye shall receive power, after that the Holy Ghost is come upon you; and you shall be witnesses unto me (Acts I : 8)
The spiritual person is not a weak person. Meekness is not weakness. Our Lord Jesus Christ was meek and humble, but also he was strong and powerful.
If you are a spiritual person you will be a powerful person in everything, even in your mission, in your ministry. You see that one sermon from Saint Peter on the day of Pentecost could attract three thousand persons to the faith and they were baptised (Acts II : 41). It is not to minister but to have power when you minister to God, when you have mission to God. You can read about how Saint Paul was powerful and about how Saint Stephen the first deacon and first martyr was of great power in his service. We may read about this in Acts VI : 7 where, after ordaining these first deacons, it is said,
And the word of God increased; and the number of the disciples multiplied in Jerusalem greatly; and a great company of the priests were obedient to the faith. And Stephen, full of faith and power, did great wonders and miracles among the people.
He had controversy with three synagogues of philosophers and it is written in the Book of Acts (VI : 10),
And they were not able to resist the wisdom and the spirit by which he spake.
Those philosophers could not resist the wisdom and the power of his speech. The spiritual person is a powerful person. He makes an impression on people. His ministry may be strong and powerful and impressive as it happened in the apostolic age and also he may have power against the devils, against the devils themselves. Some people fear the devils, but the spiritual person doesn’t fear devils, instead they fear him ! So we can read in Luke X : 19 that our Lord said to the disciples,
Behold, I give unto you power to tread on serpents and scorpions, and over all the power of the enemy.
When our Lord Jesus Christ was preaching many of the devils were crying and many of the saints did the same. The devils were afraid of them because they were afraid of the Holy Spirit in them. They were not normal persons.
If you sin that means you are weak. Why weak ? Because you were defeated by the devils, defeated by temptation. But the strong person will not be defeated. He is strong. The great apostle John wrote in his First Epistle, to the youth (II : 14),
I have written unto you, young men, because ye are strong, and the word of God abideth in you, and ye have overcome the wicked one
They are strong, the word of God is abiding in them and they could overcome the wicked one. So, as we have said, Christian spirituality means that people may return to the image of God, to return to their first dignity, to return to their power and strength – all of them – and also to return to the life of holiness and try to reach the life of perfection. For this way the great apostles in the apostolic age could cause Christianity to spread everywhere through their power.
This lecture asks what is Christian spirituality in a changing world ? I want to say to you the world may change, but principles, values do not change. Even if we are in a changing world, we have the commandments of God which cannot be changed. We have the principles and values which cannot be changed. The saints of the past also lived in a sinful world and they could keep their holy life solid and powerful. For example, Daniel the Prophet. He lived in exile in a pagan country. They ordered him to worship their pagan gods, but he was strong enough to resist. Moses lived in the palace of pharaoh, among much of the pharaonic worship, but he could remain not only a believer, but a hero of faith. Joseph, the son of Jacob, lived in a house in which there was a woman – the wife of his master – tempting him, but he was strong enough to face the temptation. The point is this, have you power inside your heart or not ? We don’t speak about the world, a changing world, whether it is sinful or not, but we speak about ourselves. Have we strength inside or not ? You can’t say temptation is like a fire consuming everything. Fire may consume straw, paper and wood but water may put out fire, it cannot be consumed by fire. Are you paper or water ? The waves may be very strong but the strong ship may go on its way. But if there is a gap, a hole in the ship, it will be lost. So you may check yourself, if there is any hole in your mind, in your soul, in your spirit, that you may be drowned or endangered when waves come upon you ? Our Lord God gave us an example (Matthew VII : 24-27) : a house built on rocks and another house built on sand. The storms came and the winds, but one of them was lost and the other remained solid. So in a changing world, we should keep ourselves strong in our hearts, strong in our minds. And what else?
If there is a changing world and the world is a sinful world, Saint Paul said (Romans XII : 2), Be not conformed to this world, he means of the same form as this world, but be ye transformed by the renewing of your mind. Don’t let your mind be as the mind of the world, but you should have renewal in order that your principles, your values, should be correct. So many people imitate sinful persons, but you should be strong enough not to imitate sinful persons in the world. Our Lord God said (Ephesians V : 11) that we should have no fellowship with the unfruitful works of darkness, but rather reprove them. Righteousness has no fellowship with lawlessness, light has no communion with darkness. Those people who love the darkness more than the light cannot be your friends, cannot be your ideals for you to imitate them. Are you afraid or do you prefer to live in peace without making troubles with those who live in darkness ? You should be brave enough so that you can witness to the Lord. Our Lord said
Ye shall receive power, after that the Holy Ghost is come upon you: and ye shall be witnesses unto me (Acts I : 8)
What is our witness in such a sinful world ? What is our witness to the truth, the brave witness, the strong witness ? We should say, this is wrong, or this is against the commandment of God, this is against the holy life. We should live a holy life in order that God may have mercy upon us. How many times do we say in the Church, Lord have mercy ? But have we mercy on ourselves, to keep our lives in an innocent way, to have pure hearts, to have purity of the heart, purity of the mind, purity of the body, or do we only say, Lord have mercy ? The Lord wants to have mercy, but we should work with the Lord.
I want to say that the changing world, the sinful world is in need of your efforts to guide it to the life of repentance. You have to work for this sinful world. You have to guide others to the life of repentance. You have to guide others to the life of truth, to obey the commandments of God and to be holy in their flesh and in their souls and in their spirits. If you have the Holy Spirit abiding in you, you will be strong enough, you will be a bridge between human beings and God Himself. You will be as Jacob’s ladder (Genesis XXVIII : 12) in which there were angels ascending and descending. You may ascend with the needs of people and descend with the grace of God for them.
If there is a sinful world you should pray and struggle with God for the repentance of the sinful world. You should use teaching and rebuking also and you should give the ideal example of the practical holy life in front of this world. You should teach that a spiritual life is not a theory but it is practical and you give an example of this practice.
Now I want to say to you that there are two powers which are working in the world : the power of the Devil and the power of the sons of God. Who will be victorious in this struggle ? Can we say that the Devil is stronger ? Never ! we should be more powerful than the works of the Devil. We should witness to the Lord, practically and in an impressive way to make an impression on people which will guide them to the ways of God. Sometimes the works of the Devil may have another reaction or it should have a counter action from our side in order to save the people of God from sin and the expansion of sin everywhere. I don’t want to speak about the details of these sins, but you know quite well what sins I mean and what you have to do for the kingdom of God.
You are not living alone in this world. You have a work to do for others. We cannot say, as Cain said when God asked him, (Genesis IV : 9) Where is Abel thy brother ? he replied, Am I my brother’s keeper ? or his guard and protector. Yes you are. If you love your brother you should save him from this sinful world. The Church should be strong enough to save the world from sin, to witness to the Lord – not in an official way – but from the depths of your heart you should work for the purity of the world, for purity and holiness in order that everybody may be sanctified by the Holy Spirit in spirit, in soul and in body.