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)

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Adam, Moses and Christ: Denying Salvation Alone

Exodus 32:9 (NRSV)
The LORD said to Moses, “I have seen this people, how stiff-necked they are. Now let me alone, so that my wrath may burn hot against them and I may consume them; and of you I will make a great nation.”   . . . On the next day Moses said to the people, “You have sinned a great sin. But now I will go up to the LORD; perhaps I can make atonement for your sin.” So Moses returned to the LORD and said, “Alas, this people has sinned a great sin; they have made for themselves gods of gold. But now, if you will only forgive their sin—but if not, blot me out of the book that you have written.”
(Exodus 32:30)

Holy Moses!  There are many great events in the life of Moses which are wonderful to contemplate.  Exodus 32 describes one such stunning moment.  God is fed up with Israel and tells Moses to stand aside as God intends to destroy Israel.  Moses puts his own life on the line in defense of Israel – a people who have done nothing but rebel against Moses and blame him for all their troubles.  Yet, Moses tells God, he won’t separate himself from Israel – whatever Israel’s fate is to be, Moses demands that he should share their same judgment.  Even though Moses did not sin against God on this occasion and God tells Moses that he alone is to be made into a great nation, Moses tells God: “If you won’t save Israel, then don’t bother to save me either.”  God is not willing to destroy His faithful servant, so chooses to spare Israel rather than lose Moses.  The notion of salvation being a social construct is an idea revealed in Scripture.  No one is saved alone.  In Christianity all  are saved as part of the Body of Christ – and thus together with all of God’s redeemed people.  Moses shows us to choose that communal way of thinking – even if I’m the only one not sinning, still I choose to be identified with all of the people of God, to share with them whatever judgment they deserve.  Moses tells God: Do not look at me and see me as the lone righteous person.  I’m either part of the people, or I am nothing.

The idea that we are saved in, through, with and because of community is not one that meshes well with the extreme individualistic thinking of the modern West.  It does, however, remind us of what it is to be truly and fully human – to share in a common human nature, to be part of social history, to be lovingly united to one’s fellow humans.

We encounter this same thinking in a rather rare, yet beautiful interpretation of Scripture found in the writings of Johannes Duns Scotus, a prominent Franciscan theologian of the 13th century.  Going against the Augustinian tradition which dominated Western Christianity, Scotus has the first human, Adam,  choosing to eat the fruit God forbade them to eat, not in rebellion against God but rather choosing to be united with his wife Eve, who had already fallen in sin and become mortal.  For Scotus, Adam commits not the original sin, but rather chooses self-denial, kenotic love.  Instead of being separated from the woman whom God gave him because of her sin, Adam decides to share Eve’s fate, showing his true humanity.  Adam may think the whole mess is God’s fault (“the woman YOU gave me...” – Genesis 3:12), but he denies himself in order to remain united to God’s gift to him – united to “the bone of his bones and the flesh of his flesh” (Genesis 2:23).  All humans share the same life, a life which God in the incarnation chooses also to share with us.   Scotus says:

“Adam saw perfectly clearly that his wife had been deceived and that the serpent had lured her into a trap from which she could not now escape. She will have to die, he thought, and God will offer to create a new companion for me, either from another one of my ribs or from some other source. But I do not want a new companion. I want this one and only this one. There is but a single way in which I can remain with her, and that is by conjoining my fate to hers. We will live — and, when the time comes, we will rot together.”   [quoted in Stephen Greenblatt’s The Rise and Fall of Adam and Eve, p 308]

Scotus has Adam thinking like Moses – I do not want to be considered by God apart from the people God gave to me.  It is a tradition not of salvation alone, but salvation as a member of God’s chosen people.

Both Exodus 32 and Scotus’s quote also reveal to us the Lord Jesus, who chose to deny His exalted, heavenly position, and to become a human, in order to completely identify with us, including choosing to die for us and with us and because of us, rather than to be a transcendent God separated from us His creatures.

So if there is any encouragement in Christ, any incentive of love, any participation in the Spirit, any affection and sympathy, complete my joy by being of the same mind, having the same love, being in full accord and of one mind. Do nothing from selfishness or conceit, but in humility count others better than yourselves. Let each of you look not only to his own interests, but also to the interests of others. Have this mind among yourselves, which is yours in Christ Jesus, who, though he was in the form of God, did not count equality with God a thing to be grasped, but emptied himself, taking the form of a servant, being born in the likeness of men. And being found in human form he humbled himself and became obedient unto death, even death on a cross. Therefore God has highly exalted him and bestowed on him the name which is above every name, that at the name of Jesus every knee should bow, in heaven and on earth and under the earth, and every tongue confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father.  (Philippians 2:1-11)

Jesus Christ becomes incarnate, takes on Himself human nature and the human condition in order to redeem us and be eternally united to us.  Salvation alone is no salvation at all for it denies our humanity which Christ embraced.

And all these, though well attested by their faith, did not receive what was promised, since God had foreseen something better for us, that apart from us they should not be made perfect.  Therefore, since we are surrounded by so great a cloud of witnesses, let us also lay aside every weight, and sin which clings so closely, and let us run with perseverance the race that is set before us, looking to Jesus the pioneer and perfecter of our faith, who for the joy that was set before him endured the cross, despising the shame, and is seated at the right hand of the throne of God. Consider him who endured from sinners such hostility against himself, so that you may not grow weary or fainthearted.   (Hebrews 11:39-12:3)

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)

The Effects of Addiction

Many have said that when the Church is being the organism in which we practice loving one another, it is a hospital for sinners.  It is the community in which we are able to acknowledge our spiritual wounds and failures in order to remove all the obstacles to spiritual healing.

(Photo by Rob Stothard/GettyImages)

Church communities, however, being made of sinners, fallen human beings, are also subject at times to all of the ills that impact humanity living in the fallen world.  Sometimes we fail to acknowledge our own fallibleness as well as our fallenness.  We all, including leadership, can fall into denial about our true state of affairs.   Fr. John and Lyn Breck write:

Just as addictive nuclear families are plagued with denial, so too is the church family. Denial is a powerful defense mechanism that allows people to go through life without considering how their thoughts and actions are at odds with the call to holiness. This leads to a moral dilemma. As A. W. Schaef and Diane Fassel write in The Addictive Organization, “Ethical deterioration is the inevitable outcome of immersion in the addictive system. It easy to understand how this happens. If your life is taken up by lying to yourself or others, attempting to control, perfectionism, denial, grabbing what you can for yourself, and refusing to let in information that would alter the addictive paradigm, then you are spiritually bankrupt.” (Stages on Life’s Way: Orthodox Thinking on Bioethics, p. 181).

Denial is not merely a psychological state – it leads to “ethical deterioration”.  Right thinking yields right behavior.  Unfortunately, distorted thinking, wrong thinking leads to wrong behavior.  Healing restores us not only to physical health or mental health, but also to spiritual health.

Community and Communion


Georges Florovsky recalls the words of Tertullian: ‘Unus christianus, nullus christianus,’ that is, ‘an isolated Christian is not a Christian.’ A person who enters into the life of the Church thereby enters into the Body of Christ, which is the Church, in the mystery of communion. In his Epistle to the Corinthians, St. Paul develops this important concept. The Holy Spirit, as the Spirit of communion, incorporates us not only into Christ as Person, but into the totality of the Body of Christ, which is inseparable from the Head. This new life includes our communion with the Body of Christ, where we are nourished by His Body, quenched by His Blood, and vivified by the Spirit who unites us into one body. This ‘Body’ contains not only the eucharistic assembly ‘here and now’, but the Church of all times, of all places – the communion of saints.

This point is crucial to our understanding of theology. My theology is not my theology, not even that of the group to which I belong, Rather, my theology has been formulated through living experience: the life and suffering of the saints since Pentecost – and even before Pentecost by the patriarchs and the prophets – in communion. The communion of the saints implies a communion of faith. This explains why the Orthodox Church does not accept intercommunion, which would make light of this profound unity, what Fr. Florovsky calls ‘ecumenism in time’. Communion of faith entails not only attempts to create unity with the dispersed members of churches in our world today, but also constancy in maintaining unity with our church fathers.”

(Boris Bobrinskoy, The Compassion of the Father, pp 128-129).

The Power of a Praying Community

“One can see them scattered in the desert waiting for Christ like loyal sons watching for their father, or like an army expecting its emperor, or like a sober household looking forward to the arrival of its master and liberator. For with them there is no solicitude, no anxiety for food and clothing. There is only the expectation of the coming of Christ in the singing of hymns. Consequently, when one of them lacks something necessary, he does not go to a town or village, or to a brother, or friend, or relation, or to parents, or children, or family to procure what he needs, for his will alone is sufficient. When he raises his hands to God in supplication and utters words of thanksgiving with his lips, all these things are provided for him in a miraculous way.” (Benedicta Ward, The Lives of the Desert Fathers, p 50)

The Parish as Christian Community

“And his gifts were that some should be apostles, some prophets, some evangelists, some pastors and teachers, to equip the saints for the work of ministry, for building up the body of Christ…”  (Ephesians 4:11-12)

Christ chose 12 men to form a special community – his first disciples.  His Gospel commandments frequently deal with how His followers were to live with and for one another.  For us to continue to be His Body, which is one image St. Paul uses to describe Christian life and community, we have to learn how to live with one another.  St. Makarios of Egypt writes:

“Simplicity before others, guilelessness, mutual love, joy and humility of every kind, must be laid down as the foundation of the community. Otherwise, disparaging others or grumbling about them, we make our labor profitless. He who persists ceaselessly in prayer must not disparage the man incapable of doing this, nor must the man who devotes himself to serving the needs of the community complain about those who are dedicated to prayer. For if both the prayers and the service are offered in a spirit of simplicity and love for others, the superabundance of those dedicated to prayer will make up for the insufficiency of those who serve, and vice versa.

In this way the equality that St. Paul commends is maintained (cf. 2 Cor. 8:14): he who has  much does not have to excess and he who has little has no lack (cf. Exod. 16:18). God’s will is done on earth as in heaven when, in the way indicated, we do not disparage one another, and when not only are we without jealousy but we are united one to another in simplicity and in mutual love, peace and joy, and regard our brother’s progress as our own and his failure as our loss.” (The Philokalia, Vol. 3, p 295)

How to Be a Disciple of Christ

The desert fathers set out to live their lives according to the Gospel commands of Christ and to form Christian communities governed not by the rules of society but by love for Christ.  Several of them wrote simplified lists of what they thought it would take to be Christians living in community and obeying the commands of Christ.  One such list comes from the Monk Moses.

“Do no harm to anyone, do not think anything bad in your heart towards anyone, do not scorn the man who does evil, do not put confidence in him who does wrong to his neighbor, do not rejoice with him who injures his neighbor.

This is what dying to one’s neighbor means. Do not rail against anyone, but rather say, ‘God knows each one.’ Do not agree with him who slanders, do not rejoice at his slander and do not hate him who slanders his neighbor.

This is what it means not to judge. Do not have hostile feelings towards anyone and do not let dislike dominate your heart; do not hate him who hates his neighbor.

This is what peace is: Encourage yourself with this thought, ‘Affliction lasts but a short time, while peace is forever, by the grace of God the Word. Amen.’” (The Sayings of the Desert Fathers, translated by Benedicta Ward, pp 142-143)

 

Feet Teach Us to Be Servants in Love

St. Basil the Great writes explaining why one cannot be a Christian alone, but rather why being a Christian means living life in community.

“As the foot has its own ability but lacks others, so that, without the assistance of the other members, it does not find in itself the power to subsist nor help to procure what is lacking to it, so, in the solitary life, what we have is without usefulness and we are without aid in what is lacking to us: for God, our creator, has decided that we should have need of one another, so that, as it is written, we should be united with one another. After this, in the same rule, he adds more:

See! The Lord, in the excess of His condescension, was not content to teach us His doctrine, but in order to give us a clear, an obvious example of His humility, in the perfection of His love, He washed and dried with a towel the feet of His disciples…

But whose feet will you wash? Whom will you care for? How will you put yourself in the last place, if you live alone with yourself? And this other word that it is pleasing and good for brothers to live together, how can this be verified in solitude? A community of brothers is, then, a stadium in which athletes are exercised, a good road towards progress, a continual training, a constant concern for the commandments of God: its end is the glory of God according to the commandment of our Lord, but it also preserves the example of the saints of who the Acts of the Apostles tell us: ‘All the believers were gathered together and they had all their possessions in common’, or again, ‘The multitude of the faithful had but one heart and one soul: there was no one who kept for himself anything that he possessed, but everything was in common.’”    (Louis Boyer, The Spirituality of the New Testament & The Fathers, p 337)