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News and Events - March 2010

NEWS AND EVENTS - Wednesday, March 3, 2010

OUR FAITH: THE GUIDE FOR ALL CHURCH WORK

A talk given at the annual Assembly
of the Serbian Orthodox Eastern American Diocese
in Cleveland on February 27

Last Sunday we celebrated the Triumph of Orthodoxy. We all celebrated the triumph of the True Orthodox Faith and beliefs over false beliefs, which are called “heresies.” We believe that God has revealed Himself and His Truth to the world in our Lord Jesus Christ, and that our Orthodox Christian Faith has preserved, guarded and maintained that Truth from generation to generation. We would all believe and accept this.


That work of maintaining the Truth has not always been easy. There have always been those who prefer their own beliefs and reasonings to that received from Christ and His Apostles in the Church. Those people sometimes had powerful backing from powerful people, who helped them push their false beliefs – their heresies – on the people of God.


That is what happened with the specific false teaching or heresy of iconoclasm or icon breaking, the triumph over which we celebrated last week. There were those who said icons were idols and so could not be used by Christians. They said God is pure spirit, not visible or material, and so could not be depicted with wood and paint. Some of the Byzantine emperors believed this teaching and ordered icons to be banned and destroyed, and the defenders of icons to be persecuted.


But there were others in the Church who defended the icons. They said that it is true that God is spirit and not material, and cannot be seen. But, they said, God at a certain point in history became material. In Jesus of Nazareth, God Himself took on flesh, a human body, and all of our human nature. And because this is true, God, through taking on a material body — through becoming incarnate — can be depicted through material means in icons. They said that not only could He be depicted in icons, but that for Orthodox Christians He must be depicted in icons, as a testimony to the reality of the incarnation, which so many rejected. (Just as an aside, one of the reasons some of the Byzantine Emperors were against icons was because they were under attack by a new threat, the expansion of the newly-established religion of Islam. By getting rid of icons and downplaying belief in the incarnation of God as a Man, they hoped to appease the Muslims, who rejected these things.)


So, the celebration of the Triumph of Orthodoxy is about more than just whether we use icons or not. It is about a basic article of our faith: The belief that God has come into the world and become one of us. That He took on a material body just as we have, and that in rising from the dead and ascending into heaven He has taken that Body with Him and made it divine. He has reclaimed all of Creation for Himself, and has again made matter holy. Many of the things we do in the Church are based on this very important and basic belief in the sanctification of the material world. We bless water to refer it again to God and make it, and through it everything in the world, a means of communion with Him. We bless food and drink to make our everyday act of eating and drinking a holy thing, a means of participating in God’s love for us. We keep and honor the relics of saintly men and women who have gone before us as being a means of contact with the holy. And above all, every week or even more often, we offer bread and wine to God as symbols of our whole life, of the whole world, and of everything God has made for us. God gives the grain and grapes, and we apply our work in planting them, cultivating them, harvesting them, working with them and processing them so that we have our gifts of bread and wine, the fruit of our cooperation with God. And in offering these things to God at every Divine Liturgy, He returns them to us both materially and spiritually as Himself, Christ’s own Body and Blood, so that we can be united with Christ both in body and in soul.


Why have I gone through all of this? Because, I think, even though we celebrate the restoration of icons and the Triumph of Orthodoxy over false belief and heresy, we don’t always really show our belief in these things in our everyday lives, and maybe especially in our Church life. How can I say that?


You are all active in your parish church communities. You have all served on congregation boards and worked hard for the Church. How many times, in your years of church work, have you heard somebody say, “We need to run the Church as a business.” I have heard it often enough, at all levels of church work. What does this usually mean? In the best cases it means that we can use good principles of business management to help us be good stewards of God’s gifts to us, and to advance the work of the Church. That is certainly true, and we should try to apply good principles of business management, accountability, and integrity to everything we do in the Church.


But in too many cases, those who say “We need to run the Church as a business” really mean that we need to turn a profit, that we need to “be successful” in a strictly worldly material sense, that what really counts is the “bottom line” on the financial statement at the end of the year. If this is what is meant, spiritual considerations take a back seat, or are totally irrelevant.


Yet, if that is the case — if the spiritual and material have nothing to do with one another — are we not simply restating that old heresy upon which iconoclasm is based, the defeat of which we celebrated last week: that spiritual things and material things have nothing to do with one another, that they can be kept in separate compartments so that they do not touch and contaminate each other? If this is how we think, are we not in actuality denying the meaning and power of the incarnation, of the Christmas miracle, that God Himself becomes a part of the material world in order to sanctify matter and make it holy to Him, in order to save and transfigure all things material and make them again a means of communion with Him?


Orthodox Christianity believes that we are saved with matter, not from it. We see that God made everything “very good” as the creation account in Genesis says, and that it is our vocation as Christians to rediscover this “very good” in everything, to thank God for it, and to return all things to God’s original purpose for them — the purpose of revealing God’s presence and love in all things. Is this not what the whole concept of Christian Stewardship, which we have been emphasizing so much, is all about?


No, in the Church there can be no separation between the spiritual and the material. The idea that the priest (or the Bishop) is responsible only for spiritual things, and that the supposedly “less holy” people of God are only responsible for material things is totally false. Everyone in the Church is responsible for both the material and the spiritual welfare of the Church.


But there is a God-established order in the Church of how this responsibility of all is carried out. That order is best seen in the services of the Church, especially in the Divine Liturgy when it is celebrated in all its fullness, with the “laos tou Theou,” the laity, the people of God, and the elders of the people, the presbyters, gathered around their bishop as the icon of Christ. It is the Diocese which is the basic structure of Christ’s Church. As St. Ignatius of Antioch said early in the second century as he was going to his martyrdom in Rome, “Let no one do anything connected with the Church without the Bishop. Wherever the Bishop appears, there let the multitude of the people be; just as where Christ Jesus is, there is the universal church.” The parish, the local congregation, is an extension or outpost of the diocese. There can be no such thing as an “independent” parish, apart from the Bishop, just as there can be no bishop separate from Christ, or from Christ’s people.


Just as there is an order in the Church which is visible in the celebration of the Divine Liturgy, there is also an order in our church administration. The local congregation naturally has the task of looking out for its local parish, but this task cannot be carried out in isolation from the bishop or the other congregations. Nothing unusual or special should be done without the bishop’s blessing and approval, not to say his knowledge. And that, as we discussed earlier, includes both spiritual and material or financial things. The very ancient Apostolic Canon 41 states this point explicitly: “We ordain that the bishop have authority over the goods of the Church: for if he is to be entrusted with the precious souls of men, much more are temporal possessions to be entrusted to him. He is therefore to administer them all of his own authority…”


That is why it is important that we all follow the procedures we have established in the Church. Congregation budgets and financial statements, as well as those who serve the parish in leadership roles as officers and church school teachers, must be approved by the Bishop so that he can carry out his office as the “overseer” or “supervisor” of everything done in his diocese. (The Greek word for “bishop,” episkopos, means exactly and literally “overseer” or “supervisor.”) Local congregation by-laws must agree with the constitution and rules and regulations of the Church, and all by-laws must be approved by the Bishop and the Diocesan Council he has to assist him, to ensure that each parish is governed in conformity with the Church’s common faith.


Of course, this Orthodox concept of “conciliarity” or “sabornost” also goes the other way. The Diocese makes its report on its spiritual and financial activities to the representatives of all the parishes each year at these Diocesan Assemblies. The Diocesan Council is elected at the Assembly with the approval of the Bishop. It is at Diocesan Assemblies like these that we truly see an icon of the Church as the clergy and people of God gathered around their Bishop and around the altar of God, focused on our Lord Jesus Christ who is present with us in the Eucharist.


All this also means that the parish priest, who is appointed by the bishop to represent him in the parish and to whom the priest is responsible, cannot be excluded from the administration of property or financial matters. The priest sits on the congregation board and has a particular responsibility to make sure that all actions undertaken by the board or congregation are spiritually as well as financially sound. Congregation boards themselves, and all the parishioners whom they represent, must always be careful that everything be done “decently and in order” as St. Paul says, remembering that every action they take has both spiritual and material consequences, and that as Christ’s Church we always serve Christ and must be careful to do everything in a way pleasing to Him and honoring Him as our Lord and Master.


This also means that we must always remain focused on the ultimate goal and purpose of the Church of God, which is to manifest the Kingdom of God here and now among us, and so to bring salvation in Christ to all people. It is not enough to have beautiful buildings, fat bank accounts and that positive bottom line. We cannot be “successful” as Christ’s Church unless everything we do serves Christ, and is faithful to His teaching and example.


Doing this is a constant struggle in a sinful and fallen world, which constantly tries to divert us from this straight and narrow path. In our personal lives we have the Great Fast we are currently in to teach us to put the spiritual firmly in charge of the material, in part through the self-discipline of voluntarily submitting to the discipline of the Church. We must always do the same in the lives of our Church communities. We must willingly and joyfully accept and embrace the God-given order and discipline of the Church. We as congregations must honor the fasts as well as the feasts in every activity we undertake. Remembering that our first and primary purpose as Church is to worship God in faith and truth, we must emphasize and nurture a vibrant and active liturgical and spiritual life in our parish. Remembering the Great Commission of Christ to preach the Good News of salvation, we must make teaching and outreach a primary task and purpose of all our activities. In everything we do as Christ’s Church we must be good examples of what it means to be Christian, and eliminate anything which dishonors Christ, and us as His followers.


If we remember these things, and if we allow ourselves to be guided by the deep truths of our Orthodox Christian faith in everything we do, in unity in Christ and with one another and in love for God and each other, then everything we do will be for the glory of God and for the salvation of our souls. Only then will we be “successful” as Church communities and be worthy of hearing Christ say to us, “Well done, good and faithful servant.”


Fr. Rade Merick




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