ORTHODOXY: A Faith for All People

 

ORTHODOXY: A Faith for All People

Opening talk prepared for the second Orthodox Witness “Come and See” seminar in St. Louis, Missouri, on Feb. 22, 2003, having as its theme the title of this talk.

1. The Lord embraced humanity with His Incarnation

The Lord was incarnate or “inhumanized,” as we repeat in the recitation of the Nicene Creed. Therefore He did not “become man,” as certain translations render it, because neither did He come to assume the masculine sex, nor did He become something by ceasing to be what He was. He embraced the entire human nature with His incarnation. Likewise when He stretched His arms on the Cross He did not redeem only a few elect, but He redeemed our humanity, our total human nature, uniting it hypostatically with His divine nature, and raising it up and setting it by the right of His Father in glory: “When I am lifted up from the earth, I will draw all to myself.” (John 12:32) He saved l people, because in Him the humanity we all carry, is already “saved”—united with the divinity. Indeed our Lord Jesus Christ in Him, and through Him, reconciled us with His Father and united us with Him: “In Christ God was reconciling the world to himself ” (2 Cor. 5:19). Now we all have access to God, we can all become members of His Body.

2. The Lord calls all unto Him

The Jewish people were no longer the privileged few, the elect. Another “nation” took their place—the Christian nation! As Isaiah had prophesied (Isaiah 11:10), One would rise to rule the nations, in whom all nations would set their hopes (St. Athanasios, On the Incarnation, §§35-36). And so we see that the first human beings who offered homage to Him as their first fruit were three men who came from the nations (that is how St. John Damascene interprets the presence of the three Magi). The peoples of the nations were not disappointed. Initially the Lord sent His disciples to preach only to their fellow Jews, “the lost sheep of Israel,” with specific instructions to “go nowhere among the nations” (Mt. 10:5). The Lord gave the Jews first chance, but once they rejected Him, He turned to the non-Jews: “I have other sheep, that are not of this fold; I must bring them also, and they will heed my voice. So there shall be one flock, one shepherd” (John 10:16). The task to proclaim His salvation to all peoples everywhere on earth fell on the newly anointed Apostles: “Go and make disciples of all nations” (Mt. 28:19).

3. …and continues to do so through the Church

The Apostles carried out faithfully the command of the Lord. St. Clement of Rome writes before the turn of the first century: “The Apostles for our sake received the gospel from the Lord Jesus Christ… and being fully assured through the Resurrection of our Lord Jesus Christ, went forth with confidence in the word of God and with full assurance of the Holy Spirit, preaching the gospel that the Kingdom of God was about to come. And so, as they preached in the country and in the towns, they appointed their first fruits…” (Epistle to the Corinthians) Christianity was spread quickly to all the then known world. St. Justin the Martyr writing in the sub-apostolic times attests to the spreading of the new Faith: “There is no people, Greek or barbarian, or of any other race, by whatsoever appellation or manners they may be distinguished, however ignorant of arts or agriculture, whether they dwell in tents or wander about in coveted wagons—among whom prayers and thanksgivings are not offered in the name of the crucified Jesus to the Father and Creator of all things.” St. Ireneus, bishop of Lyons, writing in the second century, refers to the Church as being “scattered through the whole world even to the ends of the earth” (Adv. Haer., I.x.1). The Church carries on the Lord’s ministry through time, until the consummation of the age, “until all of us come to the unity of the faith and of the knowledge of the Son of God, to maturity, to the measure of the full stature of Christ” (Eph. 4:13). Elsewhere the Apostle says that God builds up the Body of Christ, that is the Church, “until the full number of the Gentiles has come in” (Rom. 11:25).

4. The mission of the Church

The mission of the Church, as her very name indicates (congregation), is to bring all people into the unity of Christ, to bring everyone into her bosom. The Church’s existence is to make come true the words of the Lord, “That they may all be one” (John 17:21). Jesus Christ saves in the Church. “Christ is the head of the Church, His body, and is Himself its Savior,” says St. Paul (Eph. 5:23). The mission of the Church is to make all people members of Christ’s body so that they may be saved. The mission of the Church is to lead all people to the truth, that is to Christ, to unify all believers and to sanctify them. In the Church we receive our spiritual birth; we are regenerated in the Church. We are nourished in the Church and by the Church. But in order to receive these divine gifts we must first come “in”—as the Twelve did, and as any believer has done, from the first three thousand souls after Pentecost, to the two thousand souls Father Gillquist was instrumental in bringing “in,” and to any soul who responds to His call and comes “in” today and until the consummation of the age.

5. Being “in”

This is why we are here today*. Because we all desire to be “in.” “In” is where, in the expression of St. Augustine, we experience “totus Christus,” the “whole Christ.” “In” is where we find the power of Christ’s resurrection, the majesty of Orthodox worship, the appeal of the beauty of the iconography and hymnology to our senses and to our spirit, the otherworldliness of the spiritual life, the mystery of the sacramental life, the assurance of the truth of our faith, the reliance upon the living tradition of the Church, the sure guidance by enlightened spiritual guides to the problems of our every day life and its complex questions, where we experience spiritual joy and inner peace, the reliability of a divinely instituted governance of our life in Christ during our earthly sojourn. Of course in the Church we enjoy much more: reconciliation with God, the promise of an eternal life, the gifts of the Holy Spirit, attainment of holiness, communion and union with God. As we journey, or rather as we sail across this great sea we call life, we are always in good company. There are our brothers and sisters in Christ, and there is always the “cloud of witnesses” surrounding us, probing us, giving assurance to our hope. What we all seek, and after we find it what we all hold tightly unto, is our precious faith, revealed by our Lord to His apostles and safeguarded by the Church as an inestimable treasure. We are embraced by the Church, heart and soul, bodily senses included, for in the Church all is fulfilled, all is elevated, all is spiritualized, in anticipation of our final transformation. In the true Church one is reminded of the words of the unknown author of the sub-apostolic times “Epistle to Diognetus”: “Christians… pass their life on earth; but they are citizens of heaven.”

6. Being “out”

By the fact that one is “in” it means that one was “out.” Being “in” means that one escapes the pressures of secularism and modernism and the social agendas of our pluralistic society. Being rooted in the Church, “the pillar and foundation of the truth” (1 Ti. 3:15), one escapes the confusion of the multiplicity of theories, ideologies and philosophies and the deception of false religion. One feels secure and firm in the political, social and linguistic “in-correctness” of the Church, because one has a sense of belonging to a realm that transcends time and space, where one tastes eternity itself. The Church of God is an oasis in the arid spiritual desert of our postmodern world. Choosing to “walk in newness of life” (Rom. 6:4) means that we have left the “old self ” and we now serve God “in the new life of the Spirit” (Rom. 7:6). In the Church one experiences the prophetic words, “I will live in them and move among them, and I will be their God, and they shall be my people. Therefore come from them, and be separate from them, says the Lord” (2 Cor. 6:16-17). You see? There is an “in” and there is an “out.” One cannot limp now on one foot now on the other.

7. Salvation is offered to all

Now salvation is offered to all. Salvation is no longer the privilege of the few: “God our Savior wants all human beings to be saved and to come to the knowledge of the truth” (1 Tim. 2:4). He “is the Savior of all human beings, especially of those who believe” (1 Tim. 4:10). The call to salvation is universal. God extends His salvation to all indiscriminately, to the Jews and to the nations: “For there is no distinction between Jew and Greek; the same Lord is Lord of all and bestows His riches upon all who call upon Him” (Rom. 10:12). All those who call upon Him and receive Him with an open heart will be saved. “For the grace of God has appeared for the salvation of all human beings” (Tit. 2:11). The Apostle Peter after Pentecost told the gathered crowd, consisting of Jews and proselytes: “The promise is to you and to your children and to all who are far off, everyone whom the Lord our God will call to Him.” (Acts 2:39) “All,” here, stands for all—for every human being, even for those who are far off, that is us—”far off ” because of geographic distance or spiritual distance or faith distance. Upon hearing of the conversion experience of the heathen Cornelius the Apostle Peter proclaimed, “Truly I perceive that God shows no partiality, but in every nation any one who fears Him and does what is right is acceptable to Him” (Acts 10:34-35). But if anyone “in every nation” is acceptable to God, then it means that He offers His salvation to us too, in this country, our American nation. If only we fear Him and do His will.

8. Spiritual life

Protestantism is preoccupied with salvation. Forgive me for putting it this way, but from an Orthodox perspective this seems… selfish. Our goal is to know God, to love God, to serve God, to worship God, to glorify God, to be united with God. The means the Church offers us are the holy mysteries (called sacraments in the west), particularly holy Baptism and holy Communion, through which the grace of the Holy Spirit is communicated to us as from an inexhaustible fountain. The entire worship experience, the saving teachings of scripture and tradition, including hymnology and iconography, and the ascetical life of the Church, are taught to us by the Church, as a mother nurtures her children, teaching them everything for their survival, so that they may live and grow and be complete. In the Church we don’t talk about spiritual growth—we experience it! That is why we entitled these conferences*, “Come and See.” We could have said, even more meaningfully, “Taste and see”—but that follows our first experience. May the Lord grant it to us.

9. Orthodoxy: A Faith for All People

We have reviewed briefly how the eternal Son of God redeemed all humanity by virtue of the humanity He assumed, reconciling it with God and uniting it with God. No one is excluded from Christ’s redemptive plan (1). He made that clear by calling everyone, “Jew and Greek” alike, to turn to Him and live (2). The Church, through the apostles and their followers, continues to call all people to the unity of faith (3). The mission of the Church is to unite us all with Jesus, the Savior (4). In Christ, in His holy Body, the holy Church, we find everything necessary for salvation (5). The Church calls us out of the world and the deception of false religion (6). Salvation is offered to all indiscriminately, that means to every one of us (7). The grace of the Holy Spirit is offered to us in the Church and by the Church (8).

10. Conclusion

My dear Christians: What is missing in this short introductory talk addressing our theme is the altar call. However we do not have altar calls. We have repentance, not a one-time act, but a life characterized by it. Every moment is an opportunity given us by God to turn away from the centrifugal force of the self and to orient ourselves toward God, our target. In that sense we will say with the Apostle Paul, “Behold, now is the acceptable time; behold, now is the day of salvation” (2 Cor. 6:2).

Article graphics and editing: Tony Hatzidakis

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