Tuesday, February 9, 2016

Only One Church

There is only One Church, just as there is only One Christ. How can we know this? Well, the Church is personified as ‘the Bride of Christ’ and Christ is ‘the Bridegroom.’ Christ is named ‘the Second Adam’ and so His Bride is named ‘the Second Eve.’ The pattern revealed in Genesis, ‘a man leaves his father and mother and is united to his wife, and they become one,’ demonstrates that marriage is a joining of two previously individual beings. Plural marriage, both polyandry (several men, one woman) and polygyny (many women, one man), cannot be ‘marriage’ at all. By definition it is a joining of one with one to become one. There is one Bridegroom, Christ, and one Bride, the Church.

Does this bear any relationship to what we see in the world? No, it doesn’t. In America, as in most countries of the world today where Christians live, the concept of ‘One Church’ is completely unknown. ‘Church’ has become another name for a social expression of Christianity without reference to its historical source. Only in a very few countries, Greece, for example, does ‘Church’ continue to mean ‘the Christian community of this land which, with minor exceptions, means everyone.’ In other European countries which still maintain ‘state churches,’ a legacy of the Christian Roman Empire of Constantine the Great, the memory has not completely faded. The Church of England is still ‘the Church.’

Back to America, this country never had a state church or official religion, except ‘God.’ The cardinal tenet of ‘separation of Church and State,’ however, has radically changed from its original meaning of ‘no institutional church supported by the government to which everyone must belong’ and been gradually revised to mean ‘no introduction of any overtly religious activity into the administration of government or other public offices.’ Strangely, most legislative bodies open their sessions with a prayer, originally to ‘Almighty God,’ now to any supernatural being or force. Officeholders and witnesses in judicial proceedings still take oaths on scriptures, originally on the Bible but now on any sacred book.

This same country and its constitution, separate from any state church, curiously mandate the currency to bear the inscription, ‘In God We Trust,’ a motto which was only added after the Civil War. Hardly anyone objects to this because to do so would seem un-American. Even many of the unchurched in this country ‘believe in God,’ whatever that means. The freedom of religion that is the bedrock of spirituality in America has produced exactly what it intended, thousands, not hundreds, of small ‘churches,’ each promoting its own version of the Gospel. Entering into this multiplicity of denominations come the Roman Catholic and the Eastern Orthodox churches, and they cannot help falling in line with them.

Roman Catholicism is now seen as just a denomination, though from its point of view, it is ‘the Church.’ As a Greek Orthodox, I have no problem with that. Why? Because ‘they’re on to something,’ even though I’m not sure they know it. As for the Orthodox, split, in America, into multiple jurisdictions, most of them in intercommunion, are also seen as denominations if they’re recognized as Christian churches at all, though from our point of view, we are ‘the Church.’ Sounds familiar? Don’t the Catholics say the same thing? Well, they do, and they have an advantage that we don’t—their claim is almost believable. As for us, we are ‘the Church’ and so confident of that, that we can squabble all we want.

Proud of popelessness, but too humble to give even an inch to our opponent in any controversy where status quo might be in jeopardy, making our claim to be ‘the Church’ as we do should make us blush. St Paul, were he to visit us today, would be more than scandalized. To him, our differences would seem trivial. It was bad enough when ethnic biases separated us into Arab, Greek, Russian, Serbian, and Ukrainian parishes. At least our ‘cradle Orthodox’ priests knew that there was still only one Church. Now, with so many convert priests carrying ‘the need to be right’ along with them and playing denominational rugby, pitting Orthodox against each other, and Orthodoxy against ‘the world,’ we too have lost our vision.

What vision? The vision of the Kingdom of God, ‘when the earth shall be filled with the glory of God as the waters cover the sea,’ where the whole land and all its inhabitants belong to the Lord, where there is a single Church, because it comprises all people who believe in and follow Jesus. This is the charter of the Church, ‘Therefore go and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit.’ The church that knows that it is ‘the Church’ acknowledges all Christians in its territory (in this case, the United States) as its members, and treats them as such while ‘going and making disciples,’ opening wide its doors, because it knows, there are no other doors.

What might this look like? Start from either the Roman Catholic or the Orthodox Church. First, be completely united among ourselves, one hierarchy, one jurisdiction (these terms are meaningless from Christ’s point of view) because ‘there is only One Church.’ Next, put away all non-essential requirements for membership in the Church, make the Symbol of Nicaea the only test and testimony. Then, ‘send them out two by two’ to every Christian gathering as witnesses, named neither ‘Catholic’ nor ‘Orthodox,’ to announce the Message, ‘one Christ, one Church,’ as permanent ambassadors in every place. Make no demands on conformity of customs, but invite all to the unity of faith and accept all who do not resist.

Of course, this is a lot of work! This means that the Church—whoever decides to take on the responsibility for being in reality what Christ calls us to be—must again become twenty-four seven Johnny-on-the-spot, must be willing to teach, preach, pray, heal, reconcile, restore, rescue, adopt, make room for every kind of person and group of persons. This means that the Church cannot ‘pick and choose’ only those whom it wants, who fit in, who pay the bills, who give it a voice. No, for Christ Himself is the Voice, He is the Teacher, the Healer and Physician of our souls, the souls of all of us, leaving no one out, no one except those ‘who chose to be lost,’ not by accident, but on purpose.

Yes, this really is a lot of work! And wait, there’s more! The Church, being in theory, but becoming in reality, the people of this nation and the people of God, has a hand in every good work, not just the ‘religious’ ones. Why was the local parish the center of the life of Church in previous ages? Because there was only one Church, and it was essentially inclusive. All aspects of life were seen as part of its work, and all people. Today, what would that mean for the church that ‘steps up to the plate’ to show itself as ‘the Church’? That means ‘the parish becomes the world’ around it, instead of what we are seeing at the moment, ‘the parish against the world.’ In practical terms, we don’t protect Christ.

Because this is what the churches do, they try to protect Christ instead of letting Him protect us. The announcement is sternly made before delivering the Holy Mysteries, that they are ‘only for the Orthodox, who have prepared themselves by…’ cutting off many who need His help because they are now imprisoned by ignorant scruples, while infants, children, and others, quite possibly sinners and blasphemers, go up to receive, stating their baptismal name, ‘the servant of God…’ But the Church does not do this. The Church that knows herself and her place, God’s presence amidst the people, is Christ’s Bride and Mother of all who have faith, sinful and righteous, ignorant and learned, stranger and friend.

Make the way easy, remove all obstacles, before the path of those who are running towards Christ, the Way, the Truth, and the Life, and welcome them into the Kingdom. Make the way difficult, throw up barriers, before the route of those who are running away from Him, so that they may come to their senses, and return. Christ says, speaking to His holy apostles who complained of others, not of their number, promoting the Message, ‘Whoever is not against us, is for us.’ The Church that knows herself also knows that these words are spoken for her protection and also for the healing of the nation, binding up its wounds, restoring its sight, releasing it from bondage, and for the unity of all in Christ.

O Church of the living God, our Savior Jesus Christ, you are His Bride and our Mother. Open yourself now and receive all who seek to know your Divine Husband, and welcome them into the Paradise of Life.

Save, O Lord, Your people, and bless Your inheritance.

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