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If You Love Me: Serving Christ and the Church in Spirit and Truth

Narrated by: Kristina Wenger
Length: 5 hrs and 15 mins
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Summary

The lesson of love can never be taught simply by words.... Rather, it is taught by truly giving yourself and communicating the love and longing for Christ to those you serve.... 

How awesome and dignified is Christian service! And how good is the trustworthy and loyal servant who can say along with Christ, learn from me, for I am gentle and lowly in heart (Matt. 11:29). 

This audiobook is essential and inspiring material for all who would devote their lives to the service of Christ and his church.

©2018 James Helmy (P)2018 Ancient Faith Publishing

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  • Pedro S.
  • 15-07-19

A treasure for all of us in Christian service

Abba Matta, known in the US (and probably the rest of the Anglosphere) as Matthew the Poor, is probably the greatest monastic elder to come out of the Egyptian monastic tradition in a millennium. Under his leadership, the Coptic monastery of St Macarius the Great went from the verge of extinction to again becoming a flourishing center of Egyptian monasticism—from 6 elderly monks to 130 men devoted to the monastic vocation, with monks who went on to renew the life of other similarly fading monasteries or to found new monastic centers. If You Love Me: Serving Christ and the Church in Spirit and Truth is a great demonstration of how that happened. Abba Matta has a charism for the formation of Christian servants, since the foundation of Christian life is service for the sake of Christ. He does not limit the idea of a servant (diakonos) to an ordained office or a professional role (though he does touch on ordained ministry), but to one who “builds souls.” This kind of service is, I think, a requirement of all Christians. We may not all operate in any official capacity, but we build up souls in our children, our brethren, fellow parishioners, and even among the people we serve in our “private” or “professional” lives. We are supposed to make disciples of all nations and to be known, after all, by our love.

This relatively short but very dense book of essays on Christian service is divided into two parts, “The Nature of Christian Service” and “On the Education of the Christian Servant.” In the first part, Abba Matta helps the reader understand how someone might discern a call to service and what the sort of “shape” of Christian service looks like.” In each section of each chapter of this section, he lays out qualities, qualifications, struggles, failures, challenges, temptations, and considerations that Christian servants face. In the second part, Abba Matta’s focus is on what we might best call formation. There’s no easy way to capture the essence of this entire work in a review, but I’ll try to give some meaty highlights.

Abba Matta begins with the most foundational aspect of Christian service, writing “Love is the ultimate criterion of Christ’s service. Any criterion used to measure our service other than love is a merely human measurement.”

Echoing St Seraphim of Sarov’s exhortation to “Acquire the spirit of peace and thousands around you may be saved,” Abba Matta tells us that “a successful servant does not receive these gifts [necessary to feed the souls of those served with love, faith and hope] for the sake of serving others, but rather for his own salvation… the servant who feeds on God’s gifts only for the sake of returning them to others usually remains empty and toils in vain.” Here, he emphasizes the necessity of purification, prayer, ascetic labors, and other aspects of Christian praxis—his delivery of this made me feel called to account for my spiritual sloth but also hopeful for the ability to struggle with such labors by the grace of God.

Later, he writes, “Though the salvation of a human soul is not the work of man, it nevertheless is achieved through man. Therefore, despite the fact that the servant should never make the error of seeing himself as a savior, he must know that he is still a means or instrument of salvation.”

Despite this lofty role for the servant, Abba Matta avoids puffing up the servant by expressing that the servant’s work is really struggling for his own purification through self-abandonment and humility, that we might aid in the salvation of others by giving ourselves up and dying to ourselves for Christ’s sake. He makes it clear that this is a particular struggle for the servant, and when he says that it is better to fall under the yoke rather than to give up the yoke, we know then that our falling under the burden of servanthood is a real possibility. He’s also direct about the attacks that Christian servants will face: “The devil’s ultimate goal is to destroy the servant’s strength by endlessly torturing his soul so that he finally flees the battleground of service and escapes the critics, slanderers, and devils that threaten him.” Wow. That sounds intense, right? It is, and Abba Matta shows us how this isn’t different from what the apostles and early church servants faced.

How does someone get to this point where one can struggle for purification in the context of servanthood, aiding in the building up of souls and hopefully being a tool to the salvation of others? This is precisely what Abba Matta spends the last third of the book explicating. A servant “cannot be commended simply for having many books or for acquiring much knowledge; rather, he is commended by the Spirit of Christ who is charged and inflamed within him every day by the prayers and sacraments of the Church and by the voice of Christ in the Gospel.” What does this mean in practical terms? The servant must be one who has abandoned himself in favor of “a new life of regeneration, simplicity, love, and humility” which has as ”both its starting point and final destination in the Church” (which Abba Matta rightly calls the “the union that binds us to Christ and to other Christians”). The servant formed not by theological treatises but by a life of prayerful participation in the liturgy and sacraments of the Church, thereby receiving the spirit of the Church. The liturgy, Abba Matta tells us, opens the door to repentance, compunction, “and an openness to living in love and reconciliation.”

Abba Matta tells us that the chief obstacle impeding Christian service is “the feeble state of most servants’ spiritual lives… [because of] their enfeebled psychological state.” He then lists the causes of such an enfeebled psychological state in some detail (a follower mentality, partisanship, and the poor habits cultivated by a bad upbringing) and describes the way these shortcomings can be overcome. The first is “to offer love in the form of sacrifice and to love God.” To do this, Abba Matta says, we must imitate Christ and strive for union with Him; he outlines some specifics of how we are to follow Christ in our temperament, actions, will, and our work.

After explaining “the making of a servant” and the psychological health of a servant, Abba Matta spends the single longest portion of this book enumerating “The Spiritual Education of the Servant” in incredibly concrete terms. I’d do more damage than justice to try to summarize this portion of the text in any meaningful way, but Abba Matta tells us that the servant’s “credentials for serving the younger generation” is the inheritance of Orthodox Christian spirituality, which consists of:
• “Ascetical life: prayer, fasting, and faithful, consistent participation in sacramental worship
• Doctrinal training: informing the believer of the tenets of the faith and implanting belief so securely in the heart that it cannot be shaken by doubt or trouble
• Christian conduct: what should or should not be said and done, so that the conscience is groomed and trained in the fundamental values of the Orthodox Church
• The life in Christ: nurturing essential love that brings a servant closer to God and increases his zeal, light, and discernment.”

Abba Matta’s explanation of these four aspects of Christian life in the final chapter, especially in the context of servanthood, would be worth the cost of the book alone. That being said, the entire book is one of the best resources for understanding how the Christian life ought to be lived. Anybody who struggles with the question “What does God want from me?” should read this text, especially in the context of discerning any sort of ministerial vocation (lay or ordained, official or unofficial). If you’re wondering if you should pursue a path of ministry in the Church, read or listen to this book as well as St John Chrysostom’s writings on the priesthood. Abba Matta’s writing is a great treasure from the Coptic tradition. He serves as a great model for all Orthodox Christians (and, I dare say, as one vital locus for understanding points of convergence for any unity that might someday arise between the Byzantine and Coptic traditions), and I look forward to reading or listening to more of his works.

Footnote: I listened to If You Love Me twice on Audible before writing this review, and I ended up purchasing the eBook to avoid butchering quotations. After writing the bulk of the review, I ended up purchasing physical copies to loan out / gift to some young adults who are wrestling with discerning what Christian service should look like in their lives (and who, I thought, would benefit from the wisdom of Abba Matta). Ancient Faith Media provided me with a complementary download of the audiobook in exchange for an honest review, but I purchased the Kindle edition and print version outright with no discount.

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  • christina
  • 15-01-20

Blue Print for all Ministries

This book is quite amazing. Not only does it allow you to delve deeper spiritually, it also changes your perspective on service. Fr. Matthew eloquently writes about how service within the walls of the church is futile unless the servant lives a life of service in general. This is only done if the person reflects on one's relationship with God and living a daily life of repentance. Once that is achieved, one is able to view service as God working through them, lightening the burden of serving others. I highly recommend this book to be read by clergy and laymen alike. I pray that every church incorporates this book into every "prepare to serve" course administered to those desiring to serve God in the best way possible.

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  • Jason A. Gagnon
  • 14-11-19

The Challenge of an authentic Christian Life



I've read two other books by Matthew the Poor- (Words for our Lives and Words for our Time) and this one is a little different than the others. It is a set of essays, rather than transcribed talks. What is lost of the intimacy from the talks is more than made up for in the robustness and thoroughness in the essays presented here.

The focus in this book is on being a Servant of Christ and His Church. And to be a christian servant, the focus is on service in love, as love. And it's hard.

This book is a challenge- it challenges those of us who like to read books and fill our heads with Christian ideas, but filling your heads with Christian intellectual knowledge is not the same as filling your heart with Christian service. He challenges us to pray, fast, read the scriptures and the patristic fathers, and to put God and others before ourselves.

There are long sections on various stumbling blocks of the Christian life, and these are written with the wisdom that comes from having witnessed them - Abba Matthew has seen people go astray, even when they think they are serving the church, and his warnings are worth heeding.

I'll come back to this book again, in a couple of months. It is full of hard and practical advise, and after I've lived with it a few months it will be good to re-explore.

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  • Reggie
  • 27-09-19

Excellent

Nice narrator. Explained a lot of the faith. Easy to listen to and understand. Highly recommend.