Sergius Bulgakov, The Orthodox Church
When Orthodox Christians read the above passage in Bulgakov's classic The Orthodox Church, most of us assume with an unconscious smugness that we have it, the ‘Church of Christ on earth,’ that we are it, the true Church, and this belief is reinforced at every liturgy when we sing ‘We have seen the true Light…’
But in the very next sentence Bulgakov states an alarming proposition—‘The Church of Christ is not an institution; it is a new life with Christ and in Christ, guided by the Holy Spirit.’ The man has let the cat out of the bag. I mean, the Church is not something that is ‘set on automatic,’ or can rest on beds of laurel.
Well, yes, we know that, but still, we're the true Church, we have the true faith, otherwise what's the point of being an Orthodox Christian? Once again we are confronted by the obvious but well-hidden fact that the point of being an Orthodox Christian is to be united to Christ, to partake of the Divine Nature.
More than confessing Christ before the world in verbal testimony or churchly announcement, as Orthodox Christians we are here to give our lives, as Christ did and does, for the life of the world. We are here both to taste and to share His literal, not just symbolic, presence in our midst, living in and among us, as us.
For yes, brethren, we are the Body of Christ, and Jesus our Saviour and good Lord, is our Head, our only Mediator and Advocate, who ‘was not separated from His humanity, but remains in it.’ The resurrection started with His literal rising from the dead, and as we are born into it, born again, we are saved.
Saved from what? This is no mere self-betterment regimen. The world offers plenty of these, and if it doesn't destroy our planet first, it will undoubtedly save the world. Save it for what? The world knows no heavenly kingdom, no kings. It strives to create a perfect social order, in which all are its slaves.
There is no kingship in the works of the flesh, but in the faith of the saints, all become kings and queens, ‘they will reign forever and ever’ (Revelation 22:5). This is why the Orthodox Church is. This is the point of being an Orthodox Christian. Not to pressure wash the world, but to be what Christ says we are, ‘the Light of the world’ (Matthew 5:14).
Let's look at the same passage of Bulgakov again, this time, as Christians who do not belong to the Orthodox Church, maybe as a Roman Catholic, but especially as a bible-believing Christian, or maybe as one who believes in Christ, in whatever manner, and tries to follow Him, without belonging to a church.
He states, ‘Orthodoxy is the Church of Christ on earth.’ Instead of starting with Orthodoxy, let's start with the Church of Christ. If we are believers and followers of Jesus, if we believe the Bible to be God's message to humanity, or at least to us, we must know of the Church and consider ourselves members of it.
If we are members of the Church, we must be asking ourselves, ‘How does that make me Orthodox? I don't want to accept any kind of label, or submit myself to some earthly authority.’ But brethren, read on. Don't you agree with what Bulgakov states in the rest of the passage? Aren't these your beliefs too?
He states the Orthodox Church is not an institution, but rather life in Christ. This is where I now have to leave you to your own internal deliberations, just as the Orthodox left me to mine as I was coming to them as an Episcopalian a quarter century ago. I found out not that I belonged to the Orthodox Church, but that it belongs to me.
Orthodoxy, that is, the Orthodox Church in its visible and invisible aspects, is the property of all the believers in Jesus Christ, it is their, or rather our, true home on earth, where all are welcome and, therefore, all should be made welcome. In it live the saints of all ages, not in agreement only, but in merciful love.
This is the only reason why we should feel joy, once we have arrived at Holy Church—for that, and not its more formal designation ‘the Orthodox Church,’ is what we call her once we are inside her fold—this is the only reason we should feel joy when we chant…
We have seen the true Light,
we have received the heavenly Spirit,
we have found the true Faith,
worshiping the undivided Trinity,
for He has saved us.