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 According to St. Paul

“The second reality that Paul engages is the assembly (Greek ekklesia) of the Greco-Roman city (Greek polis). The ekklesia was something like the city council, a group of male elders who met to deliberate about local issues and to ensure that the polis was faithful to its heritage and values. The ekklessia had the additional duty–especially if the polis happened to be a Roman colony and/or home to the imperial cult (e.g., Corinth, Philippi, Thessalonica, Ephesus)–of dutifully and creatively expressing its loyalty to Rome and to its lord and savior, the reigning emperor.

Paul uses the term ekklesia for “the church” as a term of both continuity and discontinuity. On the one hand, it designates the assembly of believers who affirm Jesus as Lord and constitute the renewed “Israel of God” (Gal 6:16). On the other hand, this assembly exists as an alternative ekklesia and even an alternative polis, since it incorporates not just a few leaders but an entire believing community. It exists as a counterculture to embody the values of its true savior and lord, Jesus the crucified and resurrected Messiah.

The church, therefore, is a visible, even a “political” reality rather than just a group with invisible “spiritual” bonds, whose mission it is to be a living commentary on the gospel it professes, the story of the Lord (Jesus) in whom the church exists and who lives within the assembly. (See especially Phil 2:1-15.)   As such, the church reflects the character of the God revealed in Christ. This countercultural community is not produced by human effort, nor does it occur to perfection overnight; it is a process of divine activity and communal and personal transformation (e.g., Rom 12:1-2; I Thess 3:11-13; 5:23-28). To be holy is to be different, different from those outside the church and different from the way we used to be, changed from what was “then” to what is “now” (Gal 4:8-9; I Cor 6:9-11; Eph 2:1-6; Col 3:1-7).” (Michael J. Gorman, Reading Paul, pp. 133-134)

Evangelism: Bringing Joy Not Imposing a Yoke

On those mornings when we do Matins in my parish, we read the prescribed daily Epistle and Gospel readings.   This morning, as we are in the Post-Paschal period the Apostolos reading was  Acts 15:5-34.  Portions of the lesson struck me for various reasons as being very apropos to life in the Church today.

 [5] But some believers who belonged to the party of the Pharisees rose up, and said, “It is necessary to circumcise them, and to charge them to keep the law of Moses.”

Pharisees to this day continue to rise up and make such demands that religion be treated as law and the law be exactly followed.  Pharisaism is alive and well in the Church.  Issues like these continue despite the fact that the Apostles once ruled on such thinking, rejecting it.  As wearisome as this is, one has to acknowledge it is biblical, even New Testamental.

[6] The apostles and the elders were gathered together to consider this matter.

How many hours have been consumed and how many miles traveled by clergy to debate such issues?  Yet, the matter is never resolved, there will always be some new issues for people to get upset over and “point the finger” of accusation against others (Isaiah 58:9).  “Others” never live up to those aspects of religious law we think important.   But think St. Ephrem:  Grant me to see my own sins and not to judge my brother, or sister.

[7] And after there had been much debate, Peter rose and said to them, “Brethren, you know that in the early days God made choice among you, that by my mouth the Gentiles should hear the word of the gospel and believe. [8] And God who knows the heart bore witness to them, giving them the Holy Spirit just as he did to us; [9] and he made no distinction between us and them, but cleansed their hearts by faith.

And to this day, some in the church love to make distinctions between people, separating and dividing.  In St. Peter’s day it was Jew and Gentile.  Now, despite the fact that we are each baptized and have received the Holy Spirit, and that all of us in the Church have heard the Gospel and had our hearts cleansed by faith, some continue to want to make similar distinctions between bishops and believing members, between clergy and laity, between men and women.  Yet like Peter’s Gentiles whom he defended as having been blessed by God, all Orthodox – clergy and laity, men and women – have heard the Gospel, received the Holy Spirit and been cleansed through repentance and faith in and through the Sacraments of the one Church.

[10] Now therefore why do you make trial of God by putting a yoke upon the neck of the disciples which neither our fathers nor we have been able to bear? [11] But we believe that we shall be saved through the grace of the Lord Jesus, just as they will.”

Imposing burdens and “a yoke upon the neck of the disciples” is still being done today.  The yoke may change, but some see a need to burden others with rules and regulations which have been and are hard to bear.  St. Peter said not to do this.  His successors don’t always pay attention to that particular teaching of his.

[12] And all the assembly kept silence; and they listened to Barnabas and Paul as they related what signs and wonders God had done through them among the Gentiles.

Many new believers come into the Church – it is a miracle that people hear the Gospel and embrace the faith.  It happens all the time.  People who experience the joy of the Gospel and believe, receive the Holy Spirit, and they don’t have to know all of the rules and regulations of past generations.  This was a mystery for those first Torah-bound Christians.  How is it possible that God can act in people who don’t know or follow the Law of God?  And note that the assembly of apostles and elders is silent as they think about the growth God is giving the nascent Church.  They marvel at what God is doing rather than machinate about how to impose rules on those newly being born into Christ.

[13] After they finished speaking, James replied, “Brethren, listen to me. [14] Simeon has related how God first visited the Gentiles, to take out of them a people for his name. [15] And with this the words of the prophets agree, as it is written, [16] ‘After this I will return, and I will rebuild the dwelling of David, which has fallen; I will rebuild its ruins, and I will set it up, [17] that the rest of men may seek the Lord, and all the Gentiles who are called by my name, [18] says the Lord, who has made these things known from of old.’ [19] Therefore my judgment is that we should not trouble those of the Gentiles who turn to God, [20] but should write to them to abstain from the pollutions of idols and from unchastity and from what is strangled and from blood. [21] For from early generations Moses has had in every city those who preach him, for he is read every sabbath in the synagogues.”

St. James many scholars believe was even more Torah-bound than St. Peter.  Yet, he recognizes that God works through the Gospel to change the hearts of non-believers.  St. James advised that we not trouble the new converts with all manners of laws, rules and regulations, even if we believe they are from God.

[22] Then it seemed good to the apostles and the elders, with the whole church, to choose men from among them and send them to Antioch with Paul and Barnabas. They sent Judas called Barsabbas, and Silas, leading men among the brethren, [23] with the following letter: “The brethren, both the apostles and the elders, to the brethren who are of the Gentiles in Antioch and Syria and Cilicia, greeting. [24] Since we have heard that some persons from us have troubled you with words, unsettling your minds, although we gave them no instructions, [25] it has seemed good to us, having come to one accord, to choose men and send them to you with our beloved Barnabas and Paul, [26] men who have risked their lives for the sake of our Lord Jesus Christ. [27] We have therefore sent Judas and Silas, who themselves will tell you the same things by word of mouth. [28] For it has seemed good to the Holy Spirit and to us to lay upon you no greater burden than these necessary things: [29] that you abstain from what has been sacrificed to idols and from blood and from what is strangled and from unchastity. If you keep yourselves from these, you will do well. Farewell.”

So few rules.  Amazing.  Not 613 laws of Torah, not years of Tradition of the elders.  Four simple rules is all that was required of those new converts to Christianity.  And the Apostles believed this was in agreement with the Holy Spirit!  Just these few things and you do well.  What a blessing!

[30] So when they were sent off, they went down to Antioch; and having gathered the congregation together, they delivered the letter. [31] And when they read it, they rejoiced at the exhortation. [32] And Judas and Silas, who were themselves prophets, exhorted the brethren with many words and strengthened them. [33] And after they had spent some time, they were sent off in peace by the brethren to those who had sent them.

And such a simple demand from the Apostles is met with rejoicing, not with dejection and despondency.   So little is required, so much is given.  And even with so few requirements, these new Christians are embraced as full members of the Body of Christ.

It is wisely said that there is nothing new under the sun.  Pharisees still rise up to this day to trouble the Church.  The Apostolic wisdom is still needed to recognize that though some of us may have accepted and lived by many religious rules, they are not mandatory for every generation.  They can in fact be a yoke and burden that makes discipleship and salvation impossible.  The Apostles did not drive out of the Church those newly believing members whom God had chosen and inspired with the Gospel and the Holy Spirit.  They did not impose upon the new converts any heavy yoke, but they brought joy to the new faithful.

The Apostles rejected the concerns and fears of the Pharisaical members of the Church, and offered the hand of fellowship to those upon whom they as Christ’s chosen leaders chose not to yoke with Pharisaism.  It is the wisdom of the Apostolic Tradition as recorded in our Scriptures.

The Samaritan Woman (1994): Women Disciples of the Lord

Sermon notes for THE SAMARITAN WOMAN

May 29, 1994         John 4:5-42

Christ is risen!

Today we have reached the 5th Sunday after Pascha. Our Sunday Gospel lessons continue to look at the reaction of different people to Christ and how they came to believe in him. We have heard the stories of Thomas the Apostle, the Myrrhbearing Women, the paralytic man, and today’s lesson is about the Samaritan woman. Next week the lesson is about a blind man. The gospel lessons tell us about how different people become disciples of Christ.

If you notice the pattern, the lessons are about first a man (Thomas), then women, (The Myrrhbearers), then a man (the paralytic), and then again today a woman.

Today, I want for just a few minutes to make a comment about the role of women in the church. This is a topic which causes much controversy today, and usually focuses on the ordination of women to the priesthood. I do not intend to focus on that part of the controversy, since I cannot add anything new to the debate, and I do not ordain others, so no matter what I or you might think, we cannot resolve it anyway.

There is one interesting note to this. In the history of the Orthodox Church, we find women in almost every role in the church. There are women who are called disciples such as the Myrrhbearing Women referred to as the women disciples of the Lord. There are women in our church who are called equal-to-the apostles such as Helen, mother of the Emperor Constantine, and Nina of Georgia.  There are women evangelizers, which include Nina of Georgia, as well as the Myrrhbearers. And we must remember that Christ picked women to be the first to know of the resurrection, so they were the first evangelists to proclaim that Christ is risen. There are in our church’s history women martyrs, confessors, ascetics, women prophets, deacons, teachers, rulers, monastics. And perhaps even more significant, women have been recognized as saints in every one of these roles. Women have occupied almost every position in church life and been recognized as saints in those positions. I said almost every position, for in the history of our church, despite the exalted role of the Virgin Mother, and of the women disciples of the Lord and of all the other women glorified as saints in the church, there are no women who have been gloried as saints as either priest or bishop. In fact, despite a few claims today, there are no indisputable accounts in the history of the church of women serving as priest or bishop. And that is one of the major reasons today that the Orthodox Church does not ordain women today.

Now, as I said, I do not intend to wrestle with issues of ordination because I cannot resolve them. What I do want to comment on is a much simpler fact. When we read the New Testament, and when we look at the lives of saints, we come to understand that what is most important in our salvation is that we become faithful disciples of Christ, like all those people of the Gospel lessons. However it is that we come to know Christ, the truth is we all are being called to be his disciples, each of us whether male or female are asked to believe that Jesus is God’s Messiah. Our salvation, eternal life, is linked to our relationship to Jesus who is the Son of God. Our own ability to become one of God’s saints is linked to our personal willingness to be Christ’s disciple, to do as Jesus teaches us, to love and to forgive. We do not become saints by becoming ordained. No one is saved by being a priest. All of us are saved by our relationship to Jesus Christ, by becoming his disciples, by being part of the body of Christ. It is in this context that I believe St. Paul said that in Christ there is neither male nor female, neither Greek nor Jew. In Christ all of these distinctions are unimportant, because all of us are asked simply to love God and love neighbor, to love as Jesus loved us. And that aspect of being a disciple is equally accessible to all of us.

We see vividly in the Gospel lesson of the Samaritan Woman, the tensions between men and women. The woman is surprised that Jesus speaks to her publicly, because this was not considered proper behavior. Besides of course the fact that Jews would not normally accept food or drink from Samaritans. Yet Jesus speaks to her most respectfully and about the most theological things, even though her reputation is quite sordid having had 5 husbands. Jesus accepts her as an evangelist for himself, he allows her to be both disciple and preacher.

Again the male-female tensions are apparent when the disciples see Jesus speaking with this women, because this was not customarily accepted behavior. But Jesus taught those disciples to open their eyes to see the fields ripe for harvesting. He was asking them to see even their relationships with Samaritans and women in a new way. For all who are called by Christ are called to be his disciples, to be co-workers with one another on the road to the kingdom of God.

Our Lord Jesus Christ did not leave for us an exact picture of how the Church was to be structured. He left us with teachings on how to be his disciples, to be co-workers with one another in building up this Church. He taught us to what degree we are to love one another, to what extent we are to forgive one another, how we are to love God. He revealed to us what God is like, so that each of us in our turn might become god-like.

We will accomplish this task only to the extent that we help each other, and pray for each other. Amen.

Mother Churches?

“You cannot have God for your Father unless you have the church for your Mother.”   (St. Cyprian of Carthage, d. 278, On the Unity of the Catholic Church)

“We believe in one, holy, catholic and apostolic church.”  (Nicene Creed)

The Episcopal Assemblies, the new effort to establish hierarchical unity for the Orthodox in America, accepts the assumption that there is a division within the universal Church between “mother” churches and then some form of immature/infant churches.   The immature churches in this thinking apparently do not hold the fullness of the Faith, and are somehow less full or less catholic than the mother churches and so must keep a dependency on the mother churches.

It would seem pretty hard to defend this idea based in the Scriptures or in the idea of the church professed in the Nicene Creed in which there is only one Church – holy, catholic and apostolic – not different kinds of churches – mother, daughter and infant.

Indeed should not Jerusalem rather than Constantinople be considered the mother church of Orthodoxy?

When in the Acts of the Apostles, the Jerusalem Church learns of new Christian communities being formed (especially since they didn’t found these new communities, but only learned about them after they existed), the “mother of all churches” does send apostles to investigate the new communities, but then they are given the full hand of fellowship and not treated as somehow lesser, daughter or infant churches  (see Acts 8:14ff, 11:19ff, 15:22ff).  The Holy Spirit gives each local church the fullness of the faith, not the mother church whose role is to recognize the work of the Holy Spirit and to welcome into the Communion of believers the new congregations.

The Church is our mother, not the Russian Church or the Greek Church, but the Orthodox Church.   The notion of “mother churches” creates an artificial division between churches, as if there is more than one church or more than one kind of church!   We claim to believe in ONE church, not an extended family of churches with mothers and daughters of unequal rank (Ephesians 4:4-5).   If anything, the OCA is a sister church to the Russian Church.  Either the Russian mission brought the fullness of the faith to America or it did not.    For the OCA to accept the idea of the Russian Church being our mother, rather than the Orthodox Church as our mother is to deny what we profess in the Creed about the Church, to deny the Eucharist fullness of each and every local church, to deny that there is any real ecclesial unity among all local churches, and to deny the Catholicity of each local Eucharistic assembly.  When any Orthodox “jurisdiction” acts as if it is a dependency on a “mother” church rather than the fullness of faith incarnate in its locality in North America, then it is denying Orthodox ecclesiology.   Parishes and dioceses and bishops which are in communion with the rest of Orthodoxy are fully Orthodox.

Saints of North America

The working ASSUMPTIONS being made by those who want to emphasize that only the so called mother churches are fully Orthodox and Catholic are not ones that we should readily accept.  Why betray the Creed’s clear belief in ONE church?  The fullness of the faith is found wherever an Orthodox bishop is, and wherever an Orthodox Eucharistic assembly exists.

Questioning the autocephaly given to the Orthodox Church in America by the Russian Church, questions whether any Orthodox bishop or Church in fact is fully or truly Catholic and/or Orthodox; for such questions really are doubting the Orthodoxy and Catholicity not only of the Orthodox Church in America but of the Russian Orthodox Church as well.

In America, we Orthodox must wrestle with what it means that autocephaly has been give to the Church in America (not just to the OCA, but to the Orthodox in America).     Let us wrestle with what the creedal proclamation of ONE church really means for that is the key to understanding autocephaly.

The unity of THE ONE Church lies in mutual love, in the oneness of the Eucharist, in the common mind of the one true faith, not in who was founded by whom, nor in who lords it over whom (Matthew 20:25-28, Mark 10:42-45, Luke 22:25-27).

See also my blog Autocephaly, the OCA, and the Episcopal Assembly