“Be” the Church; Part 1: The Church—The Body of Christ

“Serving in a parish deep in the heartland of American Protestantism, where Orthodoxy is a very meagre & rare presence, I often tell my parishioners that our first task as a parish is to actually “be” an Orthodox Church–so that, when someone comes looking for the Orthodox Church, they’ll actually be able to find it. To “be” the Church is the whole of our salvation.” Fr. Stephen Freeman, Glory to God For All Things, http://fatherstephen.wordpress.com/

Fr. Stephen’s admonition to “be” the Orthodox Church applies at multiple levels, to the individual parish member, to the parish leadership & to the parish as a whole. Before we can discuss the application of what it means to ‘be’ the Church, I would like to discuss what the Church is not. I ask forbearance if at times I appear to be “preaching to the choir.” The environment of the Orthodox Church in America (I am not speaking of the OCA jurisdiction only here) is unique in Church history. The Orthodox community, as decades ago Fr. Schmemann noted, “…has to live in a non-Orthodox world, Western in its religious traditions, secularistic in its culture, & pluralistic in its ‘world view.’” One must be very aware of these traits of American society as they have already begun to be manifested in the Orthodox Church & will be even more so if they are minimalized, marginalized or ignored.

The Church is not a group of individuals gathered together for a common purpose or goal, such as a sports team, labor union, trade association, service organization or social club. There is nothing inherently wrong with these types of groups & activities; however, such things are not the purpose for the Church nor do they bestow meaning on the Church. Furthermore, we are not merely a group of like-minded individuals who just happen to adhere to the same faith, who believe the same Tradition, who practice the same sacraments, who perform the same rituals, who attend the same liturgical services in the same building in order satisfy an inherently human need to feel as if we are part of the same community. This is nothing other than playing church. This has nothing to do with being Orthodox in general, nor with being the Orthodox Church in the truest & most Christian sense of the phrase. While we are like-minded, & we have these commonalities in faith, Tradition, sacraments, rituals & etc., these things do not in & of themselves make us corporately “the Church”, neither locally nor universally. Even groups in the Western theological traditions have their own peculiar form of many of these things & yet they do not constitute nor are they a part of “the Church” as far as Orthodox understanding is concerned.

What then is “the Church”? The Holy Scriptures & the Fathers teach us that the Church of God is the Body of Christ with Christ as the head of that body. Our salvation is by Christ & into His Body. (1 Timothy 3:15; Ephesians 5:23; Colossians 1:18; Colossians 1:24) To quote Fr. John Matusiak then, “The Church is the union with the Truth & Love of God given to men in Jesus Christ, made present & accessible in the Holy Spirit, who lives in those who believe.” I also really like St. Paul’s writing in 1 Corinthians 10:16-17: “The cup of blessing which we bless, is it not the communion of the blood of Christ? The bread which we break, is it not the communion of the body of Christ? For we, though many, are one bread & one body; for we all partake of that one bread.” Furthermore, the Greek word κοινωνία, here translated as communion (or common union), but also translated as fellowship & sharing elsewhere, also implies & is used for the most intimate of personal relationships in many ancient texts—that of marriage (as in 3 Maccabees 4:6).

The Church—the Body of Christ—this most intimate common union by which we enter through the mysteries of Baptism & Chrismation, then is much more real & vastly deeper than the temporary nature of the union of those groups discussed above. We are truly & intimately united to the love of the Father through the Incarnation of the Son by the grace of the Holy Spirit. This union by the Holy Spirit also has another implication. Namely, not only are we intimately united to the Holy Trinity, but we are also intimately united to each other. Just as our communion with God does not commence when we enter the church building, neither does it cease when we exit. The same is true of the Body of Christ. We are not merely individuals entering who mystically manifest as the one Body of Christ at some predetermined moment in the service (like the epiklesis perhaps?) who then once again exit as individuals when all of the fun is over & all of the food is eaten. Just as we are taught to work out our own salvation, i.e. deepen our communion with God, so we must also work out & deepen our communion with each other, the Body of Christ; in actuality, these two workings are one & the same.

There has been a reason for this lengthy diatribe which I am sure has not revealed anything new to you. But for me it has ordered my thoughts so that I might develop the quote. My original thoughts were not well thought out & I do not know if they are much more so now; but hopefully they are a little at least. As previously stated I see the application of “be” the Church occurring at multiple levels, from the individual parish member, to the parish leadership & to the parish as a whole.


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