St. Cyprian’s Images of the Church

Finally, again in Cyprian, the Church is the virgin-bride who lives not for the pleasure of this world, but only for Christ. “The bride of Christ cannot be defiled; she is incorrupt and chaste. She knows but one home; in chaste modesty she guards the sanctity of one couch.”

Indeed, Cyprian piles image upon image in his search to impress the importance of unity on his readers. The Church, he says, is like the sun, whose rays are many but whose light is one.

It is like a tree with many branches but with a single strength surging through one root. 

It is like a source from which flow many streams, which nevertheless maintain a unity because of their unique beginning.

It may be compared to Christ’s seamless garment, which was not divided at his death; or to the house in which the Jews ate the paschal lamb, which was not permitted to be eaten outside; or to a dove, which keeps to one cote and which is faithful to its mate.

To the early Christians, therefore, the unity of the Church had to do with nothing less than the content of the faith itself, namely, with what had been derived from Scripture and what had been handed down by the apostles or by the fathers assembled in the synod. (Boniface Ramsey, Beginning to Read the Fathers, p. 99 & 100)

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Images of the Church: The Crowd Around Jesus

In the Scriptures and in Tradition there are many images of the Church –  Body of Christ, a living temple, a holy nation, a local community, a flock, , vine and branches, a revelation, a bride, a gathering of the saints, a hospital for sick sinners, a household, a family, the Kingdom of God.       In today’s Gospel lesson (Luke 8:41-56 – synagogue ruler Jairus and the woman with the flow of blood) , the church – the assembly of those who are following Christ is envisioned as a large crowd of people.   And not a passive crowd at that but a jostling, pushing and shoving throng.   This one is perhaps my favorite image of the Church.

The Athonite Monk Archimandrite Amilianos offers a vision of the local church which is a family gathering big enough to include everyone in the world (see The Church is God’s House for Prayer).  His vision of the Church goes way beyond any legalistic “member in good standing” way of viewing Christianity.  His vision certainly incorporates the Eucharistic offering: “Again we offer to You this reasonable worship: for the whole world…”   This certainly encompasses everyone in a crowd of people, not just the “cloud of witnesses” (Hebrews 12:1), but “all mankind” – the entirety of the human race.

Who is in this crowd, following Jesus?               His apostles, his disciples, the sick, miracle seekers, the curious, Pharisees, synagogue attendees and synagogue leaders, men and women, those who love Christ and those who hate Him, friends and enemies, those seeking the Kingdom of God and those seeking to entrap Christ in this world.   People whose names we know (Peter, James and John for example) and the unknown.  Rich people, rulers and beggars as well.  Let’s consider the Gospel Lesson:

 And behold, there came a man named Jairus, and he was a ruler of the synagogue.

The rulers of the synagogues were frequently in the Gospel among those who opposed Jesus because He didn’t keep their rules about the Sabbath.  They are sometimes his most vocal critics, and yet they are in the crowd following Christ where He goes.  Not everyone in the church community has to agree with what I think or with what most of us think.  The Church community is big enough even to consist of people who disagree with most of us or find most of us disagreeable.

And he fell down at Jesus’ feet and begged Him to come to his house, for he had an only daughter about twelve years of age, and she was dying.

Those looking for miracles.  Desperate for help from any source. Those who loved their children.  Those who are distraught and despairing and running out of hope.  Those who socially outranked Jesus and His followers.  Those who represent groups we criticize – for the synagogue leaders like the Pharisees are among those Jesus criticizes most frequently.

But as He went, the multitudes thronged Him. Now a woman, having a flow of blood for twelve years, who had spent all her livelihood on physicians and could not be healed by any, came from behind and touched the border of His garment. And immediately her flow of blood stopped.

The socially unacceptable.  The outcast. The forsaken.  Social diseased.  The despised.  Strangers.  Foreigners.  Immigrants.   Those whose lives do not matter.  But also those with means and money – this women had spent her fortune on doctors.  Those with hope and some kind of faith even if the faith is only for some self-serving end.

And Jesus said, “Who touched Me?” When all denied it, Peter and those with him said, “Master, the multitudes throng and press You, and You say, ‘Who touched Me?’” But Jesus said, “Somebody touched Me, for I perceived power going out from Me.”

The disciples are there too.  Those who think they understand Jesus but don’t.  Those who don’t understand Jesus but who follow Him anyway.  The crowd – the great unwashed masses.  The constantly needy.  The dependent.

Now when the woman saw that she was not hidden, she came trembling; and falling down before Him, she declared to Him in the presence of all the people the reason she had touched Him and how she was healed immediately. And He said to her, “Daughter, be of good cheer; your faith has made you well. Go in peace.”    

There are also in the crowd the timid, introverts, those who wish they could disappear.  The shy and retiring.  But also those who like to be the center of attention, the extroverts and expressives.  Those commanding attention, and those who are willing to be commanded.

 While He was still speaking, someone came from the ruler of the synagogue’s house, saying to him, “Your daughter is dead. Do not trouble the Teacher.”

Those who serve others.  Those who have more important things to do in life – those on a mission.  The doubters.  Those who don’t really believe in Him.  Those who want to remain respectable.  Those who are there merely because it is their job to be there. These are the aids and spokespeople for those with power and prestige.

But when Jesus heard it, He answered him, saying, “Do not be afraid; only believe, and she will be made well.” When He came into the house, He permitted no one to go in except Peter, James, and John, and the father and mother of the girl. Now all wept and mourned for her; but He said, “Do not weep; she is not dead, but sleeping.” And they ridiculed Him, knowing that she was dead.

Unbelievers.  The incredulous.  The scientists.  The realist.  The skeptical.  The Jaded. Scorners. Those who see believers as naïve and ready to be deceived.  The Pessimist.  The Cynic.  The sarcastic.  The know-it-all.  The presumptious.

 But He put them all outside, took her by the hand and called, saying, “Little girl, arise.” Then her spirit returned, and she arose immediately. And He commanded that she be given something to eat. And her parents were astonished, but He charged them to tell no one what had happened.

Parents and children.  Families and neighbors.  Brothers and sisters.

And today, we the Church are asked to be the same, followers of Christ, one and all, no matter what the reason or attraction, we assemble to be around Christ to   have Christ in our midst.  We need to be something to all the people of the world, not just a motley crowd, but visibly to be the Body of Christ – to make the One present whom the world is seeking.

For though I am free from all, I have made myself a slave to all, that I might win the more. To the Jews I became as a Jew, in order to win Jews; to those under the law I became as one under the law—though not being myself under the law—that I might win those under the law. To those outside the law I became as one outside the law—not being without law toward God but under the law of Christ—that I might win those outside the law. To the weak I became weak, that I might win the weak. I have become all things to all people, that I might by all means save some. I do it all for the sake of the gospel, that I may share in its blessings.  (1 Corinthians 9:19)

No one person can do that, but together as the Body of Christ, the parish community can become all things to all people.   We have friends, neighbors, family who might be looking for something from Christ, we are to be those who make Christ present to them.  We are to encourage them to look for Christ and to follow Him.  There may be women seeking help from God, or people with sick children, or the needy or the lost.

 

There may be people that some of us don’t want to minister to and don’t want in our midst, but others in the Church community will be able to be Christ to them.  That is the real image of the Church.

We, the Church – all of us together – are responsible for making Christ present, for giving the crowd, the world an opportunity to be with Christ.

The Church is God’s House for Prayer

“Because we know and believe that God is our Father, we view the church, especially when we celebrate the Liturgy, as our true home.We come in and go out freely, we are happy to be here, we make the sign of the cross, we light our candles, we speak with our friends, and it is easy to see that the Orthodox feel that the church is their home. And the church is our home. Our family is the gathering (synaxis) of the church. Our family is not simply our children and relatives, however many we have. It is rather all of us, all humanity, including all those who have turned aside to the left or to the right, or who have perhaps not yet even thought about God, or dared to admit that their heart is filled with cries and groans, and that, with these, they hope to open heaven, or that God will answer them, but they are hesitant and are ashamed.

The Liturgy is our family, our gathering, our house. And what a spacious house it is! Together with us are those who are absent, along with sinners, and the wicked, and the dead, indeed, even those who are in hell, but who may yet remember something about God. And who knows how many of these will find relief, be drawn out of Hades, and even dragged up from the depths of hell, thanks to the prayers of the Church, her memorial services, and divine liturgies. This is our home. We believers have such a large house!” (Archimandrite Aimilianos of Simonopetra, The Church at Prayer, p. 68)

The Church: Encountering God in Community

“The Church is seen primarily as a place of encounter, where God is not so much learned about as met, and where human lives are brought into an ecclesia, a community, of relation to this encountered God. At the beginning of its main service, the Divine Liturgy, the deacon proclaims to the celebrant bishop the intention of the Church’s work: ‘Master, it is time for the Lord to act.’ (cf. Ps. 118 [119]: 126] – announcing an act that culminates in the eucharistic encounter of the communicant faithful with the body and blood of Christ.

This focus on encounter establishes the nature of the church as intrinsically sacramental. The sacraments stand at the centre of the Church’s life and mission, not because of a symbolic significance or merit of ritual, but because in each sacrament the person is drawn farther into the encounter with God which transforms and transfigures. 

…The perception of the Church as, above all, a living organism, Christ’s very body into which his creation is drawn through encounter and relation, rather than an institution or complex that can be neatly defined.”

(Mary B. Cunningham, The Cambridge Companion to Orthodox Christian Theology, pp. 121-122)

Learning Even from Those Who are Least

“The wolf shall dwell with the lamb, and the leopard shall lie down with the kid, and the calf and the lion and the fatling together, and a little child shall lead them.” (Isaiah 11:6)

“But when the chief priests and the scribes saw the amazing things that he did, and heard the children crying out in the temple, ‘Hosanna to the Son of David,’ they became angry and said to him, ‘Do you hear what these are saying?’ Jesus said to them, ‘Yes; have you never read,
“Out of the mouths of infants and nursing babies you have prepared praise for yourself’?” ‘” (Matthew 21:15)

St. John of Kronstadt reminds us that we might hear the truth spoken to us from people we would never even imagine had anything significant to teach us.  Sometimes we resent the person for being so presumptuous as to tell us something we don’t want to hear or acknowledge precisely because it’s true.

“Sometimes  younger people, or those of equal station, or older ones, teach you by means of hints which you cannot endure, and you are vexed with your teachers. We must endure and listen with love to everything useful coming from anyone, whoever he may be. Our self-love conceals our faults from us, but they are more visible to others. This is why they remark them to us. Remember, that “we are members of one another” (Ephesians IV. 25), and are thus even obliged to mutually correct each other.

If you do not bear being instructed by others, and are vexed with those who teach you, it means that you are proud, and this shows that the fault of which others hint that you should correct yourself is really in you.” (My Life in Christ, pp. 303-304).

For the Peace from Above

For the peace from above and for the salvation of our souls . . . . For the peace of the whole world, for the welfare of the holy churches of God, and for the union of all, let us pray to the Lord. (Petitions from the Divine Liturgy)

St. Tikhon, the Enlightener of North America comments:

Therefore the angels at His very birth already sing “on earth peace, good will toward men.” But perhaps you might ask — where is peace on earth, since from the coming of Christ until this day we see conflicts and wars; when at the present time one nation rises against another and one kingdom against another; when even now discord, hostility, and animosity are seen so often among people?

Where are we to look for peace, which was brought and left by Christ (cf. John 14:27)? “It shall come to pass in the last days that the mountain of the Lord’s house shall be established in the top of the mountains”; “all nations will stream toward it” “and beat their swords into plowshares and their spears into pruning hooks,” “and they will not train for war again” (Is. 2:2, 4); “every man shall sit under his own vine undisturbed” (Mic. 4:4). This kingdom of peace on earth, which was foretold by the Prophets of the Old Testament, is indeed the Church of Christ; and it is in it [the Church] that peace should be sought. Here man is given peace with God, since in the mysteries he is purified from sin and becomes a child of the Lord, pleasant to Him. Here also in the services offered to God, in the mysteries, in the order and life of the Church, a Christian draws peace and delight and calmness for his heart.

The nature of man is transformed and renewed, and into his meek, gentle, truly humble, merciful, and loving soul comes the God of peace and love. And a Christian then experiences the heavenly bliss of which there is nothing higher on earth. No troubles or sufferings of any kind can overshadow this blissful peace in a Christian. On the contrary, we know from the history of the Church of Christ that holy men even rejoiced in suffering and boasted in sorrows, captivity and prisons, deserts and dens of the wicked. Amidst all deprivations they were placid and calm, perhaps more so than people who live with all the comforts and prosperity ever feel. They are not afraid of death itself; they calmly expect its approach and depart to the Lord in peace. Peace is dispersed everywhere in the Church of Christ.

Here people pray for peace in the whole world, for the unity of all; here all call one another brethren, and help one another; here everybody is loved, and even enemies are forgiven and cared for. And when Christians listen to the voice of the Church and live according to its commands, then they truly have peace and love.  (St. Tikhon of Moscow: Instructions and Teachings for the American Orthodox Faithful (1898-1907), Kindle Loc 453-471)

St. Gregory the Great: Renouncing Desires to Inherit the Kingdom

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So it was, as the multitude pressed about Him to hear the word of God, that He stood by the Lake of Gennesaret, and saw two boats standing by the lake; but the fishermen had gone from them and were washing their nets. Then He got into one of the boats, which was Simon’s, and asked him to put out a little from the land. And He sat down and taught the multitudes from the boat. When He had stopped speaking, He said to Simon, “Launch out into the deep and let down your nets for a catch.” But Simon answered and said to Him, “Master, we have toiled all night and caught nothing; nevertheless at Your word I will let down the net.”

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And when they had done this, they caught a great number of fish, and their net was breaking. So they signaled to their partners in the other boat to come and help them. And they came and filled both the boats, so that they began to sink. When Simon Peter saw it, he fell down at Jesus’ knees, saying, “Depart from me, for I am a sinful man, O Lord!” For he and all who were with him were astonished at the catch of fish which they had taken; and so also were James and John, the sons of Zebedee, who were partners with Simon. And Jesus said to Simon, “Do not be afraid. From now on you will catch men.” So when they had brought their boats to land, they forsook all and followed Him.   (Luke 5:1-11)

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St. Gregory the Great comments:

“You have heard, my friends, that at a single word Peter and Andrew left their nets and followed Jesus. They had not seen him perform any miracles yet, and they had not heard him saying anything about eternal recompense, but at a single command from the Lord they forgot all their possessions.

You may be thinking that these two fishermen possessed almost nothing, and so you ask how much did they have to give up? In this case, my friends, it’s the natural feelings and not the amount that we have to weigh. Those who have kept back nothing for themselves have left a great deal; those who have abandoned everything, no matter how little it may be, have left a great deal. We are attached to what we have and hold on to it; we long for what we do not yet have and try to get it. When Peter and Andrew renounced their desire to possess, they gave up a great deal; along with their possessions they renounced even their craving to possess. Those who imitate them give up as much, then, as those who do not imitate them crave to possess.

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Don’t ever say to yourselves, when you think of people who have given up a great deal, “I want to imitate them, but I have nothing to give up.” If you renounce your desires, you are giving up a great deal. No matter how little they may be, our external possessions are enough for God. He weighs the heart and not the substance, and measures the effort it costs us and not the amount we sacrifice to him. If we consider only the external substance, we see that these astute businessmen, Peter and Andrew, traded their nets and their boat for the fullness of life!”  (Be Friends of God, pp. 26-27)

Christian: To Be Christ’s Friend

“No longer do I call you servants, for the servant does not know what his master is doing; but I have called you friends, for all that I have heard from my Father I have made known to you.”  (John 15:15)

“Fear not, little flock, for it is your Father’s good pleasure to give you the kingdom.”   (Luke 12:29)

“What a sight – to see a countless multitude of luminaries above the clouds, an incomparable company of men exalted as a people of gods surrounding God! The fair ones surrounding the Fair One, the servants surrounding the Master! He does not begrudge His servants if any of them share in His splendor, nor does He regard it as diminishing aught from His own glory were He to receive many as partakers of His kingdom. Those among men who hold others in subjection, even if they give their subjects everything, would not bear even to dream of them sharing their rule. But Christ does not regard His servants as though they were slaves, nor does He bestow on them honors fit for slaves; He regards them as friends.

Towards them He observes rules of friendship which he has established from the beginning; He shares His own with them, not merely one or another part of His riches, but He gives the very kingdom, the very crown. What else is it that blessed Paul has in view when he says that they are “heirs of God and fellow heirs with Christ” (Rom. 8:17), and that all those who have shared hardships with Christ reign with Him (2 Tim. 2:12)?”  (Nicholas Cabasilas, The Life in Christ, pp. 166-167)

Why Do We Suffer In God’s World?

Who will separate us from the love of Christ? Will hardship, or distress, or persecution, or famine, or nakedness, or peril, or sword?  As it is written,
“For your sake we are being killed all day long;
we are accounted as sheep to be slaughtered.”
No, in all these things we are more than conquerors through him who loved us. For I am convinced that neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor rulers, nor things present, nor things to come, nor powers, nor height, nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord.  (Romans 8:34-39)

The time between Christ’s Ascension into heaven and His second coming to earth is the time of the Church.  The Church really is that interstice between the two comings of Christ – participating in both this world and that world which is to come.  So while Christians are called to rejoice always and to give thanks in all circumstances (1 Thessalonians 5:16-18), we find ourselves in a world in which there still is great sorrow and suffering and we still must wait for that world in which sickness, sorrow and suffering have passed away (Revelation 21:4).  Biblical scholar Richard B. Hays comments on how St. Paul deals with the current age, the time of the Church awaiting Christ’s return:

Paul reads the Psalm [44] as a prophetic prefiguration of the experience of the Christian church, so that the text finds its true primary meaning in Paul’s own present time. The point is not that ‘righteous people have always suffered like this’ rather, Paul’s point in Rom. 8:35-36 is that Scripture prophesies suffering as the lot of those (i.e., himself and his readers) who live in the eschatological interval between Christ’s resurrection and the ultimate redemption of the world. Thus, in this instance . . . Paul discerns in Scripture a foreshadowing of the church.

This psalm raises plaintively the issue that we have already seen to be the central theological problem of Romans: the question of God’s integrity in upholding his promises to Israel. Paul is struggling to vindicate God from the suspicion of capriciousness in choosing to ‘justify’ Gentiles who do not observe the Torah. Is God a fickle god who has cast off Israel (cf. Rom 3:1-8, 3:21-26, 3:31, 9:14, and all of chapters 9-11)?

The psalmist raises a question precisely analogous to the one that Paul is seeking to answer: does the community’s experience of suffering indicated that God has abandoned them?

But there is still one more significant overtone to be heard in Paul’s quotation of Psalm 44. The psalmist’s main point in verses 17-22 is that the suffering of Israel cannot be construed as a punishment for unfaithfulness or idolatry; on the contrary, God’s people suffer precisely because of their faithfulness to him.”  (Echoes of Scripture in the Letters of Paul, 58-60)

The Salvation of the World

“we are members one of another” (Ephesians 4:25)

“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.” (1 Corinthians 12:12-14)

St. Paul uses several different images of the Church – the Body of Christ.  In them it is always clear that to be a Christian is to be integrated into something greater than oneself – a body, a temple.  We cannot be a Christian without being part of this greater whole, which is the Church.  As the early Christians noted, “one Christian is no Christian.”

When we think of Christianity purely in individualistic terms, we lose sight of what it is to be a Christian.  We end up with a wrong idea about what salvation is.  Many “Christians” today think salvation is to “die and go to heaven.”  Yet numerous New Testament scholars point out that idea is not really found in the Gospel proclamation.  Salvation is about liberation from death and is about the redemption of the world.  Just as the New Testament envisions Christianity always being a Body of members, so too it understands salvation to be for the entire world, not just for a few individuals.  The incarnation of the Son of God brings salvation to the world and to humanity for it heals human nature.

Orthodox Theologian Christos Yannaras notes the negative effects of an individualistic understanding of Christianity:

“In our days, a mistaken religious upbringing has led many people to consider the Church as a means or instrument to ensure individual salvation for each of us – and when they talk of ‘salvation’ they mean an unlimited kind of survival after death in some ‘other’ world.  But in reality the Church entrusts to everyone the enormous honor to be responsible for the salvation of the whole world, of this world whose flesh is our flesh and whose life is our life.  And salvation for the Church is the liberation of life from corruption and death, the transformation of survival into existential fullness, the sharing of the created in the mode of life of the uncreated.”  (ELEMENTS OF FAITH, p 48)

The salvation of the world includes individuals, but is always about the entire creation – it is about uniting together that which sin divided, separated, alienated.

“So then you are no longer strangers and sojourners, but you are fellow citizens with the saints and members of the household of God, built upon the foundation of the apostles and prophets, Christ Jesus himself being the cornerstone, in whom the whole structure is joined together and grows into a holy temple in the Lord; in whom you also are built into it for a dwelling place of God in the Spirit.” (Ephesians 219-22)