Now there were some Greeks among those who went up to worship at the Feast. They came to Philip, who was from Bethsaida in Galilee, with a request.
“Sir,” they said, “we would like to see Jesus.”
John 12:20 NIV
For most church-going Christians, the main service on a Sunday is usually our only opportunity to hear the Word of God in the context of worship. This is a matter of the highest importance for the Orthodox Christian, because according to our belief, the Word of God can only be fully and correctly understood in the context of worship. That’s why Orthodoxy has two primary meanings to us, right-thinking, and right-worshipping.
For any Christian who goes to church, the main service is where you go “to see Jesus,” or as Bonhoeffer puts it, to bring yourself to a place “where faith is possible.” In many churches, the proclamation of the good news, the gospel, consists either in a combination of bible readings and a sermon, or a sermon alone containing a series of bible texts along with their explanation. In either case, the preacher must realize what great responsibility he has to show the people Jesus, and how brief a time he has to do that.
One Sunday morning at Aghía Triás, my family church, the scripture texts were Galatians 2:16-20 and Luke 8:41-56. As an added bonus, we were commemorating Nektarios of Ægina, a recent “canonized” saint famous for his gift of healing, especially cancer. The message of the Galatians portion can be summed up in verse 21 which was not read, “If the law can justify us, there is no point in the death of Christ.” The gospel reading was the story of the woman with the hemorrhage, and the raising to life of the dead daughter of Jairus, a Jewish synagogue official. The final verse of the Luke portion was “Her parents were astonished, but He ordered them not to tell anyone what had happened.”
Well, as it turns out, our preacher that morning listened to Jesus’ instructions, and didn’t tell us anything about the raising of Jairus’ daughter, or even enlighten us further on what holy apostle Paul wrote about the place of the law in a Christian’s life. No, he didn’t preach anything as homely as that. Instead, we were treated to a session on self-realization, finding out who we really are, and then sticking to our guns through thick and thin, no matter what people might think of us.
What did I learn from the sermon? A lot of things, actually.
Our preacher had been to Greece, where he tried to buy an iced coffee milk at a kiosk, but ended up asking the woman if he could sell her a cup of coffee. Bad Greek! He also was at the school in Athens that Nektarios, the saint of the day, had once directed. While there, he was attacked by a giant cockroach just as we was beginning to pray at a proskynitárion (prayer station). Bad bug!
When he finally finished his stories and started preaching, we were treated to a profound verse from the poet Hafiz, “of the Muslim tradition,” who wrote that we should have our chairs pulled out from under us, so that we could fall on God, and find out who we really are. Amazing! I didn’t know that Islam had so much to offer us Christian Orthodox.
From there, the sermon led us onwards and upwards to the feet of Nektarios the saint. Not mentioning anything, really, about the saint’s life of intercession for the sick, our preacher told the story of Nektarios from a political angle, how he was the promising successor to Patriarch Sophronios II of Alexandria but through court gossip and slander was demoted and exiled, even though “the people of Alexandria loved him.” Nektarios showed his mettle, though, in being himself, knowing who he really was, and wasn’t bothered in the least by his wrongful dumping by the patriarch. He went to head the school in Athens. Later, he quietly ordained the first two Greek Orthodox deaconesses in modern times, an abbess and a nun from a convent that he was in charge of. He actually took them “into the altar,” where women must not go according to church rules, and ordained them, putting the deacon’s vestments on them and everything. Of course, that got him in trouble, but he didn’t care, and he didn’t back down. He was right, and the church of those days was wrong. This happened long before any other churches were ordaining women to the ministry.
As far as I could tell—and I was listening to the preacher while praying the psalms as I often do during sermons—the message our preacher decided to use his precious twenty minutes with us per week on, was that (1) we should discover who we really are, (2) follow whatever we know is right, (3) stand our ground and (4) not back down in the face of opposition from the world. Nektarios was an example of that. Hafiz demonstrates that even the Muslims do as much. Did I get the message right? I hope so.
But what I really wanted to hear was Jesus’ word to me that day. And maybe I did!
Towards the end of his sermon, the preacher took us back to the gospel account. He encouraged us with the words that Jesus spoke to Jairus, “Do not be afraid, only trust…” So that’s what it all boils down to, trust. And I thought to myself, and asked again my old question, “But whom do you trust?”