I used to struggle with the idea of the Church—what is it? who is it? where is it? why is it? After thinking myself into a Gordian knot, one day a line I had read dozens of times in a book by one of my few favorite Christian writers, Sergey Fudel, finally cut through that knot and saved me any further trouble trying to undo it. ‘The Church is a pan-human reality,’ he writes in his book Light in the Darkness. That idea confirmed much of my experience.
Once I understood that the Church is a pan-human reality, that every human being is included in it, my whole view of what constitutes evangelism changed. The root meaning of evangelion, the good news, the gospel, was revealed to me as essentially this, that ‘God so loved the world that He gave His only begotten Son, that whoever believes in Him shall not perish but have eternal life,’ the famous John 3:16. Now the struggle was ‘whoever believes.’
I had read another famous line, ‘There is no salvation outside the Church,’ and I witnessed the great lengths to which people have gone to try to impress belief on the unbelieving, everything from trying to extract their faith by spectacles, to squeezing it out of them by social pressure, to arguing it out of them by debate, to threatening it out of them by hell fire, even to extorting it out of them by barely disguised bullying—all of it, mere religious marketing.
Then I heard the words of another of my few spiritual teachers, Mother Gavrilia, who said, ‘Our faith is not for sale.’ A light turned on in my head and a fire kindled in my heart. Right, Christ and His holy apostles were not salesman for a heavenly product—salvation. They were the great King sallying forth with His chosen ambassadors to announce that Love has appeared in human form and the gates of paradise have been forever opened to all who would enter.
And who are outside, who not aboard, that ship? who flailing hopelessly adrift in the stormy sea? who crouching, bows and javelins in hand, behind rocks to shoot at, to spear those safely sailing in the ship of faith? I see no one and nothing but shadows flickering on the restless waves, shadows of those very saved ones peering out at the sea as they fill the decks. Shadows, that is, fears, that have now been proven to be nothing at all, though they threatened many a saved soul to abandon ship. Yes, shadows flickering on the restless waves, fears alone are the lost, forever separated from the souls on board.
There is no ‘Catholic’ Church. There is no ‘Orthodox’ Church. There is no ‘Evangelical’ Church. There is only the Church, only the Ship of Faith, only the Body of Christ, only the Bride of the Lord and Bridegroom, Jesus Christ. Yes, ‘the’ beyond name and number, ‘the’ before all division and multiplicity. The Church that recognizes this truth knows that its field is the whole earth, that there is no territorial limit to its jurisdiction or its responsibility. There is no religion or lack of it that excuses us from fulfilling the ‘great commission’ or from announcing the Message, ‘Be reconciled to God’ (2 Corinthians 5:11).
We have a great ally in the work of handing on this reconciliation. The same Lord who commands us, ‘Go,’ is also present in every living soul to which we are sent. He awaits our arrival in the heart of every human being whom He has created for eternal joy, and to whom the Door to that joy is He Himself, dwelling secretly within. As the unborn forerunner John leapt in his mother’s womb at the sound of the voice of the Theotokos, the Mother of his Lord, so leaps the unborn spiritual heart of every person when we announce the true gospel of Christ to them, without guile or condemnation, but with genuine love.
Now I know that the Church is not only invincible—the gates of Hades shall not prevail against it—but that it is inevitable. It is where the whole human race is heading, like it or not, because mercy is irresistible. New birth cannot be stopped any more than birth can. An infant has no choice. It must be born. It must leave the familiar and comfortable womb of its mother. It must receive breath. It must shortly be nursed at the breast, and then rebel against it as it should, as its mother desires. The Church is the mother of the entire race, and when she recognizes all as her children, she raises them together.
The weak really are strengthened, not rejected. The ignorant really are taught, not despised. The insane really are cured, not tolerated. The wayward really are disciplined, not indulged. The addicted really are freed, not abandoned. The hopeless really are encouraged, not driven to despair. So, human will returns to God. The Church knows that it cannot be divided, nor was it ever by anything real, only men’s vain opinions which, like Hades’ infamous gates, shall never, because they never could, prevail. ‘A mighty fortress is our God’ is transfigured to ‘God is inside the City, she can never fall, at crack of dawn, God helps her’ (Psalm 46).
It must be written that in the first decades of the first century of the third millennium of the Church, great persecutions raged, horrible crimes against humanity were committed, but that these only deepened the furrows and fertilized the earth for the reception and growth of the seed of the New Adam, these only cleared away the brambles that had been choking the seed sown before. Yes, a new humanity, a race of priests and kings, first-born sons and universal citizens, God’s incarnate images on earth male and female, that is what the Church is, was, and will be, to the ages of ages.
Yes, the Ship of Faith.