Summer Sundays – Coming to Church

As the summer heats up, some Christians might be tempted to skip church for a few Sundays so they can enjoy the summer or just recreate as is often good for us to do (see my post Vacation and Recreation).  Some may think vacation is also a good excuse for skipping church.  It is good for us however to remember why we “go to church” in the first place.

This is why the Church assembles weekly in the Eucharist, not merely to offer petitions, but to remind us that communion with God requires sacrifice. Each Sunday we remember all that the Lord has done for us – “the cross, the tomb, the resurrection on the third day, the ascension into heaven, the enthronement at the right hand of the Father, and the second, glorious coming” – and we are moved to eagerly offer everything we have in return, proclaiming, “Thine own of thine own we offer unto you.” (Demetrios S. Katos, “The Foundations of Noetic Prayer”, Thinking Through Faith, p. 64-65)

“Going to church” is offering our life to God and joining all who offer their talents, resources, time and hearts to God.  We enter into communion with our fellow Christians and with our Lord.  We join our sacrifice to His to give thanks to God and to receive the blessings of eternal life.

Labor as Light to the World

Render service with enthusiasm, as to the Lord and not to men and women, knowing that whatever good we do, we will receive the same again from the Lord, whether we are slaves or free.  (Ephesians 6:7-8)

Another example of light is our work, which here [in the monastery] is not servile labor but a diakonia, a service performed for monastic community without gain, without necessity, without force; a well-pleasing sacrifice which is illuminated by prayer and becomes a transfiguration of the world and of objects, a way of continuing the Divine Liturgy outside church.

Because here the light is the contemplation and use of the physical world, not for pleasure but for the needs of the community; not like the destructive consumption based in technology, but in order to make nature already now a partaker of the glory of the children of God, and allow it to sing praise with them.   

(Archimandrite Amilianos of Simonopetra, from Living in God’s Creation, p. 112)


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)

The Unity of the CommUNITY

Teaching  by parable or story has been normative in Christianity since the time of Jesus, who himself taught in parables.  Parables present us with a special way of coming to the truth.  For parables or stories show the words themselves are not enough – one has to interpret the story to come to the truth.  Interpretation requires wisdom and knowledge.  Interpretation is key to the Gospel message.

In Mark 8:27-29, we see clearly how essential interpretation is to the Gospel:

Jesus went on with his disciples to the villages of Caesarea Philippi; and on the way he asked his disciples, “Who do people say that I am?” And they answered him, “John the Baptist; and others, Elijah; and still others, one of the prophets.” He asked them, “But who do you say that I am?” Peter answered him, “You are the Messiah.”*

Even having Jesus standing right in your midst or having the ability to observe Jesus’ deeds and words does not automatically give one the knowledge of the truth.  Jesus asks his disciples, “How are people interpreting me?”   And those who had observed Jesus’ teachings and miracles, still came to differing conclusions about who Jesus is.  The same is true for having the Bible – the truth is in the interpretation of the words.  The Bible alone cannot give you the truth.

And behold, an Ethiopian, a eunuch … was reading the prophet Isaiah. And the Spirit said to Philip, “Go up and join this chariot.” So Philip ran to him, and heard him reading Isaiah the prophet, and asked, “Do you understand what you are reading?” And he said, “How can I, unless some one guides me?” And he invited Philip to come up and sit with him. Now the passage of the scripture which he was reading was this: “As a sheep led to the slaughter or a lamb before its shearer is dumb, so he opens not his mouth. In his humiliation justice was denied him. Who can describe his generation? For his life is taken up from the earth.” And the eunuch said to Philip, “About whom, pray, does the prophet say this, about himself or about some one else?” Then Philip opened his mouth, and beginning with this scripture he told him the good news of Jesus. 

We need reliable spiritual guides to help us interpret the Scriptures.  This is clear in the Scriptures themselves!

What follows is a story for the desert fathers, also used to teach us how to live the Gospel.  We need to take time to think about the story and to know the Kingdom of God is found in the meaning the story conveys.  The monk John Colobos related the following story:

“A brother asked Abba Sisoes: ‘If we are walking along the way and our guide goes astray, should we tell him?’ ‘No,’ the elder brother said to him. ‘Should we let him lead us astray then?’ said the brother? The elder said to him: ‘What else? Are you going to take a stick and beat him? I know some brothers who were walking along and their guide went astray in the night. They were twelve in number and they all knew they had gone astray; they were each one at pains not to say anything. At daybreak their guide learnt that they had strayed from the way. “Forgive me,” he said to them; “I have gone astray.” They all said: “We too knew that but we kept silent.” ’ [The brother] was astounded when he heard this and [Abba Sisoes] said: ‘The brothers disciplined themselves not to speak [of it] until death,’ and he glorified God. The extent to which they had gone astray was twelve miles.” (Give Me A Word: The Alphabetical Sayings of the Desert Fathers,  p 288)

Are we to beat with a rod a member who becomes lost in the spiritual life?  What does it take to preserve the unity of community?  What seem to be the most important values to these monks?  What virtues do they exhibit?  The story is really counter intuitive for many practically minded Americans who would simply want to “fix” the errant problem.  What does love have to do with this lesson?


The Crowded Church

The Gospel lesson of Luke 8:41-56 has been a favorite of mine for the simple reason that I see it as presenting a “type” of the Church.   Throughout the Gospels, wherever Jesus goes, a crowd is following.  In that crowd are His disciples, but also curiosity seekers, sinners, Jewish religious leaders, unbelievers, publicans, Pharisees, lawyers, His enemies, people hoping to witness or experience a miracle, those seeking God’s kingdom, the desperate, and many others.  We in the Church, in our parishes, should always be welcoming and hospitable to any such members of the crowd who show up at our parishes.  We should treat them as Jesus did regardless of what reason that show up in our assemblies.

Many Gospel pericopes have this crowd, but Luke 8:41-56 always stands out in my mind as a good example of this crowd.

Just then there came a man named Jairus, a leader of the synagogue. He fell at Jesus’ feet and begged him to come to his house, for he had an only daughter, about twelve years old, who was dying. As he went, the crowds pressed in on him. Now there was a woman who had been suffering from hemorrhages for twelve years; and though she had spent all she had on physicians, no one could cure her. She came up behind him and touched the fringe of his clothes, and immediately her hemorrhage stopped. Then Jesus asked, “Who touched me?’’ When all denied it, Peter said, “Master, the crowds surround you and press in on you.” But Jesus said, “Someone touched me; for I noticed that power had gone out from me.” When the woman saw that she could not remain hidden, she came trembling; and falling down before him, she declared in the presence of all the people why she had touched him, and how she had been immediately healed. He said to her, “Daughter, your faith has made you well; go in peace.” While he was still speaking, someone came from the leader’s house to say, “Your daughter is dead; do not trouble the teacher any longer.” When Jesus heard this, he replied, “Do not fear. Only believe, and she will be saved.” When he came to the house, he did not allow anyone to enter with him, except Peter, John, and James, and the child’s father and mother. They were all weeping and wailing for her; but he said, “Do not weep; for she is not dead but sleeping.” And they laughed at him, knowing that she was dead. But he took her by the hand and called out, “Child, get up!” Her spirit returned, and she got up at once. Then he directed them to give her something to eat. Her parents were astounded; but he ordered them to tell no one what had happened.

The Gospel lesson starts off with the leader of the synagogue, Jairus by name, begging Jesus to come to his house and heal his 12 year old  daughter.  Frequently in other Gospel lessons, the synagogue leaders are among Christ’s most vocal critics.  And their great complaint is that the disciples and Jesus do not adhere to every minute tenet of the Torah.   Despite the criticisms of Christ by the synagogue leaders, here is one such leader following Christ and openly seeking His help and mercy.

Next in the Gospel lesson a woman, deemed unclean by Torah and synagogue leaders, secretly approaches Christ to touch the hem of His garment.  She represents yet another group of people following Christ.  She is not seeking to become a disciple.  She is not looking for Orthodox doctrine, nor is she even concerned about following the Torah.   She is in need of God’s mercy, and violates Torah in order to obtain it.  Her deed and intention do not remain hidden.  Jesus exposes what she has done.  Now everyone in the crowd is aware that this woman, unclean by synagogue standards, is in the crowd, touching everyone.  And Jesus does not rebuke her, but in fact blesses her!   All she wanted was to touch the hem of His garment.  This is what many want from Christ, and our parishes should be open to them.  They are not seeking membership in the parish, they are not seeking leadership in the Church, not promising to become obedient to all religious rules and regulations.  But, they are also following Christ and seeking something from Him.   Jesus does not send them empty away (see Luke 1:53).

Now in the Gospel lesson, the synagogue leader faces a further dilemma.  He has invited Jesus to come into his house.  Jesus not only was touched by an unclean woman, but also rewarded her disobedience to Torah and synagogue by healing her.  Jesus does not even first demand that she promise to fulfill Torah.  He simply grants her mercy and even wants the crowd to know what both she and He did!

So does the leader really want this Jesus to come into his home and defile it with His own uncleaness?  Jairus is even given a way out in the Gospel lesson.  At the very moment that Jesus is speaking a blessing on this unclean woman, someone comes and tells Jairus that his daughter has already died, so no need for Jesus to come to his house.  Jairus is given a polite way out – he can tell Jesus legitimately that Jesus shouldn’t bother to come to his house.  Thus Jairus can show that he keeps Torah and not let his house be defiled by Jesus.  Jairus, however, does not demur and brings Jesus into his home.

Jesus raises Jairus’ daughter from the dead.  Then, quite strangely, tells Jairus and his wife not to tell anyone what had happened.  But a crowd at Jairus’s house already knew what had happened.  They had laughed at Jesus when he said the girl was sleeping.  That crowd already knew she was dead.  They would have then seen her alive, and the parents, if they followed Jesus’ command would not tell the people what had happened.  Maybe this was Christ’s mercy, for now Jairus would be spared having to admit that he sought out Jesus and then invited the unclean Jesus into his house to heal his daughter.  Jairus could continue publicly to keep Torah, but in his heart he would know something greater than Torah had entered his life.

The Unity of All Local Churches

“All the multitude of local churches forms one union founded on concord and love. Every local church must be in concord with all the other churches, because within the Church of God, ever one and only one, there can be no discord. This means, empirically speaking, that every local church accepts and makes its own anything that happens in the other churches, and that all the churches accept everything that happens in each fellow-church.” (Nicolas Afanasiev in Living Icons by Michael Plekon, pg. 161)

Serving God Not Just the Parish

Fr. Alexander Schmemann wrote: “And the parish as parish, i.e., as Church has no other task, no other purpose but to reveal, to manifest, to announce, this Living God so that men may know Him, love Him and then, find in Him their real vocations and tasks.” He also wrote: “The parish is the means for men of serving God and it itself must serve God and His work and only then is it justified and becomes ‘Church’. And again it is the sacred duty and the real function of the priest not to ‘serve the parish’, but to make the parish serve God – and there is a tremendous difference between those two functions. And for the parish to serve God means, first of all, to help God’s work wherever it is to be helped.” (Robert T. Osborn in St. Vladimir’s Seminary  Quarterly Vol. 9 Number 4, pgs.187-188, 190)

The Woman Who Touched Christ’s Garment

Luke 8:41-56

 As Jesus went, the crowds pressed in on him. Now there was a woman who had been suffering from hemorrhages for twelve years; and though she had spent all she had on physicians, no one could cure her. She came up behind him and touched the fringe of his clothes, and immediately her hemorrhage stopped. Then Jesus asked, “Who touched me?’’ When all denied it, Peter said, “Master, the crowds surround you and press in on you.” But Jesus said, “Someone touched me; for I noticed that power had gone out from me.” When the woman saw that she could not remain hidden, she came trembling; and falling down before him, she declared in the presence of all the people why she had touched him, and how she had been immediately healed. He said to her, “Daughter, your faith has made you well; go in peace.” 

Fr. Meletios Webber wrote:

Thomas touching Christ

“We cannot brush against God without being changed. In the case of the woman who was healed when she touched Jesus surreptitiously in the crowd, the encounter with God changed her life. So it is with us. Every meeting with God, no matter how casual or seemingly insignificant, involves both judgment and transformation.” ( Steps of Transformation: An Orthodox Priest Explores the Twelve Steps, pg. 147)

Loving a Fellow Parishioner

“We, the faithful, should look upon all the faithful as one single being, and should consider that Christ dwells in each of them. We should have such love for each of them that we are willing to lay down our lives for him. Nor should we ever think or say that anyone is evil: we should look on everyone as good, as I have already said. Even should you see someone overwhelmed by some  passion, execrate, not him, but the passions that fight against him. And if he is mastered by desires and prepossessions, have even greater compassion for him; for you too may be tempted, subject as you are to the same fluctuations of beguiling materiality.” (St. Symeon the Theologian in The Philokalia, Volume Four, pgs. 36-37)