Being the Church

The mystical body of Christ is the tangible symbol and arena of God’s presence in our midst. By virtue of our membership in Christ we are now intimately related to each other. The very definition of church, ekklesia in Greek (ek, “out of,” plus klesia from kalein, “to call” – those who have been called out of their old place and summoned together into this new reality) refers to persons, therefore, and not buildings.

This living church is the community of Christ’s disciples responding to the call to be the assembly of God in a specific place. God calls us from out of the chaos and alienation of everyday living to be a people, his people in our own day. (The Monks of New Skete, In the Spirit of Happiness, p. 219)

The Church is the Body of Christ

For just as the body is one and has many members, and all the members of the body, though many, are one body, so it is with Christ. For by one Spirit we were all baptized into one body—Jews or Greeks, slaves or free—and all were made to drink of one Spirit. For the body does not consist of one member but of many.

If the foot should say, “Because I am not a hand, I do not belong to the body,” that would not make it any less a part of the body. And if the ear should say, “Because I am not an eye, I do not belong to the body,” that would not make it any less a part of the body. If the whole body were an eye, where would be the hearing? If the whole body were an ear, where would be the sense of smell? But as it is, God arranged the organs in the body, each one of them, as he chose. If all were a single organ, where would the body be? As it is, there are many parts, yet one body. The eye cannot say to the hand, “I have no need of you,” nor again the head to the feet, “I have no need of you.”  . . . If one member suffers, all suffer together; if one member is honored, all rejoice together.    Now you are the body of Christ and individually members of it.   (1 Corinthians 12:12-27)

Peter Kreeft comments on being a Christian and a member of the Body of Christ, the Church:

“I am I whether or not I am a part of a party, a club or a nation.

But this is not true of members (organs) in a body. Remove heart, lungs or kidneys from the body and they die.

A member of a group has a life outside the group; an organ in a body has no life outside the body. An eye removed from the body and put on a plate no longer lives. It is even no longer an eye. It cannot see outside the body, it loses its identity.

This is how we are related to the Church. The Church is not essentially an organization but an organism. The Church is not Christ’s society but Christ’s Body.

The Christian has no life or identity apart from Christ (and therefore apart from his Body). If I were to die and discover that there was no Christ, that Christ was dead, that Christ was not God, that I was not alive with his life in his Body, then I would not be I, I would be another person.

(Christianity for Modern Pagans, p. 319-320)

Most interesting insight into being a member of the Church – “The Church is not Christ’s society but Christ’s Body.”  Each member is indispensable to the Body, and no Christian can claim that he or she does  not need the Body of Christ.   The Body is essential to the life of each Christian who can remain alive only as part of the Body.

Worthy to Receive the Body of Christ

Chrysostom also proves the importance of the forgiveness of sins both in the context of the assembly in the wilderness and in the Liturgical Assembly. He points out that the forgiveness of sins was essential to the Israelites before they could safely and beneficially partake of the manna and drink, just as it is essential to the members of the Ecclesial Community before they can receive the Mysteries of Christ’s Body and Blood.

Moses leads the Israelites in the desert

As long as they [the Israelites] honored the equal distribution of their goods, the manna continued to remain manna. However, when they decided to be greedy, greediness made the manna become worms. Indeed, with this behavior they did not harm others because they did not grab from the food of their neighbor in order to have more than their neighbor; but they were condemned because they desired more. Even if they did not commit injustice toward their neighbor, they hurt their own selves very much because, with this manner of assembling together, they habitually continued to dwell in greediness. Therefore, the same manna was simultaneously admonished [educated] their souls. It not only nourished them, but delivered them pain.

If a Christian joins the Liturgical Assembly and receives the Body and Blood of Christ unworthily and without repentance, the Body and Blood of Christ will lead to his judgement and condemnation, like the manna that became worms to the greedy Israelites. The members of the Church must free themselves of greediness and other evils through repentance, and consider themselves as equals, before gathering together to constitute the Liturgical Assembly, or else receive God’s condemnation.

(Protopresbyter Gus George Christo, The Church’s Identity, p. 94)

Maintaining the Unity of the Community


“Seek the LORD while he may be found, call upon him while he is near; let the wicked forsake his way, and the unrighteous man his thoughts; let him return to the LORD, that he may have mercy on him, and to our God, for he will abundantly pardon. For my thoughts are not your thoughts, neither are your ways my ways, says the LORD. For as the heavens are higher than the earth, so are my ways higher than your ways and my thoughts than your thoughts.”   (Isaiah 55:6-9)

The rise of desert monasticism occurred because some Christians hoped they could live a communal life based solely on the Gospel commandments of Christ rather than on the wisdom and power of the world.   They rejected the success of imperial Rome and the “Roman Peace” based in worldly power and might.  They understood the ways of the world could be more efficient but they believed the means must be consistent with the end rather than that the ends justified the means.  They were not willing to sacrifice their morality based in the Gospel commands to achieve their desired goal.  Or rather, they saw living in this world according to the Gospel commandments as the goal, not the means to the end.  They were not trying to earn their way into the Kingdom of Heaven, rather they were trying to live the up-side-down values of the Kingdom of Heaven while on earth.  As they prayed – as in heaven, so on earth – so they tried to live.

These Christians developed an entire literary genre firmly based in these values of the Kingdom – the apophthegm, the sayings of the desert fathers and mothers.  These sayings are part of a wisdom literature of the people of God.  They are not rules and rubrics, but wisdom based in experience.  Sometimes they are simply stories  which show how they tried to live together with the only rules being those of the Gospel.  What we see in these stories is sometimes even humorous.  Today, we might look at them and say how ridiculously impractical for we can see easy solutions to their problems – correct the mistakes and move on.  They however wanted to live in the unity of love, and believed they must never ever break that bond of mutual concord.  So for example we read this sagacious aphorism:

Once when Abba John was going up from Scete with other brothers, their guide lost his way and it was night. The brothers said to Abba John: “What shall we do, abba, for the brother has lost his way; maybe we will wander off and die?” The elder said to them: “If we tell him he will be grieved and ashamed. But look here: I will pretend to be sick and will say: ‘I cannot travel [further] so I am staying here until dawn,’” and so he did. The rest of them said: “Neither are we going on; we are staying with you.” They stayed [there] until dawn and did not offend the brother. (John Colobos, Give Me a Word, p. 135)

Our pragmatism would smile and say, “just tell the guide he is going the wrong way.”   Their dilemma is that they must not break the unity of love between themselves, and so rather than point out the fault or failure of the guide, the one elder feigns illness to stop the guide from going further astray, rather than embarrass the guide by pointing out his fault.  They looked not for the most straightforward and pragmatic solution to their “problem” –  that they are lost.  For them, the real problem was: knowing they are lost, how do they stop the guide from making everything worse without shaming him.

“Above all hold unfailing your love for one another, since love covers a multitude of sins.”   (1 Peter 4:8)

The values of the Kingdom must be lived, and so without ever pointing out the guide’s error, they found a way to stop and wait for daylight to see where they were.  The Light of Christ would shine on them, but they had to find the way to get to that point without offending the guide.  And in this story, everybody else except the guide knew they were lost.  It isn’t majority rule in the Kingdom, it is majority love.

Be watchful, stand firm in your faith, be courageous, be strong. Let all that you do be done in love.   (1 Corinthians 16:13-14)

When We Fail as Disciples

And when they had come to the multitude, a man came to Him, kneeling down to Him and saying, “Lord, have mercy on my son, for he is an epileptic and suffers severely; for he often falls into the fire and often into the water. So I brought him to Your disciples, but they could not cure him.”

Then Jesus answered and said, “O faithless and perverse generation, how long shall I be with you? How long shall I bear with you? Bring him here to Me.” And Jesus rebuked the demon, and it came out of him; and the child was cured from that very hour. Then the disciples came to Jesus privately and said, “Why could we not cast it out?” So Jesus said to them, “Because of your unbelief; for assuredly, I say to you, if you have faith as a mustard seed, you will say to this mountain, ‘Move from here to there,’ and it will move; and nothing will be impossible for you. However, this kind does not go out except by prayer and fasting.” Now while they were staying in Galilee, Jesus said to them, “The Son of Man is about to be betrayed into the hands of men, and they will kill Him, and the third day He will be raised up.” And they were exceedingly sorrowful.  (Matthew 17:14-23)

It was a tough day for the Apostles.  First, they were not able to perform a miracle and heal a boy. Worse yet, the father of the boy goes and brokenheartedly reports their failure to the Lord Jesus.  Second, Jesus seemingly piles on to their woes by lamenting having to bear with them.  Third, Jesus then tells them the real bad news – He is about to be killed by these people.  Did the Apostles even fear that perhaps they contributed to people wanting to kill Jesus because they failed to heal the boy?  The crowd is turning against their Lord because they cannot do something He promised them they could do:  “These twelve Jesus sent out, charging them, ‘Go . . . to the lost sheep of the house of Israel. And preach as you go, saying, “The kingdom of heaven is at hand.” Heal the sick, raise the dead, cleanse lepers, cast out demons.‘”  (Matthew 10:5-8)  The Gospel lesson begins with the Apostles in dismay and ends with them being filled with sorrow.

“Lord, have mercy on my son, for he is an epileptic and suffers severely; for he often falls into the fire and often into the water. So I brought him to Your disciples, but they could not cure him.”

Like the Apostles, we who are Christ’s disciples today may not be able to heal a child, or to do other miracles for those who come to us, but there things we can that will fulfill Christ’s commandments to us.  We don’t want people coming to Christ complaining to Him about how we fail in the most basic things.    We shouldn’t let it happen that people could come to Christ and say about us:   “Lord, I came to the members of Your parish and they didn’t minister to me.  We don’t need to worry about  “I was sick, and they didn’t heal me.”  But what about “I was sick and  they didn’t even visit me or pray for me.”  These are things we as Christ’s disciples must never fail in because they really are within our power to do.  We don’t need any miraculous powers to pray for others or visit them.

There are many other complaints people might make about us to our Lord:

I came to Your disciples and . . .

They weren’t patient with me or my child.

They weren’t merciful to me

They didn’t forgive me.

I was hungry, they didn’t feed me

I was homeless or poor and they didn’t welcome me.

I was sick or in prison and they didn’t visit me.

I was naked and they didn’t clothe me.

I was thirsty but they gave me no drink.

I was a stranger and they didn’t welcome me.

Or even

…. They gave me no peace.

They brought me no joy.

They showed me no kindness.

They did not practice self-control.

I was an addict and they fed my addiction .

I was an alcoholic and they didn’t help me stay sober.

I was addicted to porn and they sent me dirty jokes.

The Lord Jesus invites all kinds of people into His Church with all kinds of needs and imperfections:

And as he sat at table in his house, many tax collectors and sinners were sitting with Jesus and his disciples; for there were many who followed him. And the scribes of the Pharisees, when they saw that he was eating with sinners and tax collectors, said to his disciples, “Why does he eat with tax collectors and sinners?” And when Jesus heard it, he said to them, “Those who are well have no need of a physician, but those who are sick; I came not to call the righteous, but sinners.”   (Mark 2:15 -17)

As Christ’s disciples, we are to minister to them in the ways that Christ commanded us, and many of those ways are not miraculous, but simple things well within our powers.

That evening they brought to him many who were possessed with demons; and he cast out the spirits with a word, and cured all who were sick. This was to fulfill what had been spoken through the prophet Isaiah, “He took our infirmities and bore our diseases.”  (Matthew 8:16-17)

He himself bore our sins in his body on the tree, that we might die to sin and live to righteousness. By his wounds you have been healed. For you were straying like sheep, but have now returned to the Shepherd and Guardian of your souls.  (1 Peter 2:24-25)

The Theotokos as an Image of the Church

It might not be surprising that the use of a virgin-mother as an image of the Church began to be paralleled at this time by the use of Mary, virgin and mother, for the same purpose. Preceded by Ephrem in the East, Ambrose was the first to develop this metaphor in the West, and in an important passage he does so in terms that recall his virgin-mother-Church metaphor. After recounting the relationship between Mary and Joseph as recorded in the Gospel of Luke, he comments on its deeper meaning:

Let us address the mystery: She was truly espoused, but a virgin, because she is a type of the Church, which is immaculate but married. As a virgin she begot us form the Spirit, as a virgin she bears us without groaning. And this is perhaps why the holy Mary, although married to one person, was impregnated by another, because the individual churches as well are in fact filled with the Spirit and with grace, while simultaneously being joined under the aegis of a temporal priest.

(Boniface Ramsey, Beginning to Read the Fathers, pp. 112-113)

Remaining In Peace

In peace, let us pray to the Lord.

That we might spend the remaining time of our life in peace and repentance, let us pray to the Lord.  (Petitions from Orthodox liturgical services)

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Brethren, let us preserve this peace in ourselves as far as we can, for we have received it as an inheritance from our Savior who has now been born, who gives us the Spirit of adoption, through which we have become heirs of God, and joint-heirs with Christ (cf Rom. 8:15, 17). Let us be at peace with God, doing those things which are well-pleasing to Him, living chastely, telling the truth, behaving righteously, “continuing in prayer and supplication” (cf Acts 1:14), “singing and making melody in our heart” (cf Eph. 5:19), not just with our lips. Let us be at peace with ourselves, by subjecting our flesh to our spirit, choosing to conduct ourselves according to our conscience, and having the inner world of our thoughts motivated by good order and purity. Thus we shall put an end to the civil conflict in our own midst.

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Let us be at peace with one another, “forbearing one another, and forgiving one another, if any man have a quarrel against any: even as Christ forgave you” (Col. 3:13), and showing mercy to each other out of mutual love, just as Christ, solely for love of us, had mercy on us and for our sake came down to us. Then, recalled from the sinful fall through His help and grace, and lifted high above this world by virtues, we may have our citizenship in heavenly places (cf Phil. 3:20), whence also we wait for our hope (cf Rom. 8:23), redemption from corruption and enjoyment of celestial and eternal blessings as children of the heavenly Father.

(St. Gregory Palamas, The Homilies, p. 484)

Jesus & the Church

Just as Christ could be described and understood by way of the images and titles that were associated with and ascribed to him, so could the Church. Indeed, since formal and extended reflections on the nature of the Church was relatively rare in patristic times-despite the obviously crucial significance of the topic–images, which sometimes appear to be used almost unreflectively, are a valuable means of capturing the early Christian idea of the Church. Three of the most important ones–namely, mother, ark, and virgin-bride–suggest the rudiments of an ecclesiology.

The Church was a mother because through baptism it bore and nourished children who formed a single family around it. It was an ark because it carried passengers saved from the flood of sin. And it was a virgin-bride because it renounced the world of carnality and was espoused chastely to Christ. In other words, the Church was a community of the saved, marked by a shared baptism, set apart from the world, and bound to Christ.

(Boniface Ramsey, Beginning to Read the Fathers, p. 99)

Being a Disciple

The Lord said: “Go and teach all nations.” The Church is concerned with individual souls but she also is concerned with whole nations and peoples. In the formation of cultures and civilizations, the Church has a prophetic word of witness she wants heard. She presents the transcendent in its own eucharistic reality and her paschal message of the Resurrection makes her more than relevant, for she is beyond every age. The Church proclaims that Christ has come to raise the dead who are sleeping and to awaken the living.

Every people appropriates to itself a historic mission, and in constructing itself sooner or later encounters the plan of God. The parable of the talents speaks of this normative plan proposed by God for the freedom of mankind. The ethics of the Gospel are characterized by freedom of mankind. The ethics of the Gospel are characterized by freedom and creativity. It demands all the maturity of an adult and requires infinitely more of ascetic discipline, of freely accepted constraint and of risk than any ethics of the Law. 

(Paul Evdokimov, In the World, of the Church: A Paul Evdokimov Reader, p. 206)

The Paralytic: Overcoming Obstacles

And again Jesus entered Capernaum after some days, and it was heard that He was in the house. Immediately many gathered together, so that there was no longer room to receive them, not even near the door. And He preached the word to them. Then they came to Him, bringing a paralytic who was carried by four men. And when they could not come near Him because of the crowd, they uncovered the roof where He was. So when they had broken through, they let down the bed on which the paralytic was lying. When Jesus saw their faith, He said to the paralytic, “Son, your sins are forgiven you.”

And some of the scribes were sitting there and reasoning in their hearts, “Why does this Man speak blasphemies like this? Who can forgive sins but God alone?” But immediately, when Jesus perceived in His spirit that they reasoned thus within themselves, He said to them, “Why do you reason about these things in your hearts? Which is easier, to say to the paralytic, ‘Your sins are forgiven you,’ or to say, ‘Arise, take up your bed and walk’? But that you may know that the Son of Man has power on earth to forgive sins” – He said to the paralytic, “I say to you, arise, take up your bed, and go to your house.” Immediately he arose, took up the bed, and went out in the presence of them all, so that all were amazed and glorified God, saying, “We never saw anything like this!”  (Mark 2:1-12)

Pope Shenouda writes:

Those who carried the paralytic offer another example of how to overcome obstacles (Mark 2.1-11). It would have been very easy for these people to make excuses to the paralytic, telling him that they could neither help him nor take him to Jesus. The house where Jesus was staying was full of people and very crowded. All the paths were blocked, there was no outlet nor entrance, and no way to get to the Lord. But they did not shrink from these obstacles, because their love of doing good was stronger than the obstacles. They carried the paralytic on a stretcher, uncovered the roof of the house and let down the sick person in front of the Lord to cure him. How great is this charitable intention, how powerful this will! Truly, as the saying goes, where there is a will, there is a way.

The strong heart finds a hundred ways for the thing it wishes to do. The fathers said, ‘Virtue asks you to desire only it, and nothing else.’ It is enough for you to desire. You will find that grace will open every door which closed before you. The Holy Spirit of God will strengthen you, and the spirits of the angels and the saints will surround you. Therefore do not let obstacles be an excuse, but think correctly about how to overcome them.”   (Pope Shenouda, The Life of Repentance and Purity, p. 124)