Sunset - Larnaca

Sunset - Larnaca

Saturday, 6 December 2014

Reflecting on the Church - Part 1

  • We often use the term 'Church' vaguely, without much thought or understanding. Sometimes we may put too much emphasis on the Church as a visible organisation, or at times we may question how necessary the Church is for salvation and for a relationship with Christ. I will compose a few posts consisting of thoughts on the Church; this piece being the first of the short series. The following 'Reflecting on the Church' post will be a short debate/dialogue with a fellow blogger, theology student and friend on the importance of Scripture and Holy Tradition within the Church. 

'He can no longer have God for his Father, who has not the Church for his mother'..
 - St Cyprian of Carthage

St Cyprian asserts that it is only within the Church, as our Mother, and as the body of Christ, that we can have a full and pure relationship with God, our 'Father in Heaven.' (Matt 6:9) The invocation and descent of the Holy Spirit upon all human beings, and the apostolic way of making the content of the Scripture explicit on the basis of its sacramental and spiritual application in the lives of the faithful ( in other words Holy Tradition) cannot exist and take place outwith the community of the faithful - the Church. The Holy Tradition of the Church, as revelatory work of the Holy Spirit carried out and transmitted through time, ensures stability, validity, and orthodox apostolic teaching of the Scriptures, within Christ's body.

'The Church is the dialogue of God with the faithful through Christ in the Holy Spirit..'
 - Dimitru Staniloae

Although Christ, our Saviour and Lord, died, rose again, and  ascending into Heaven, He is not separated from His humanity, but remains in it. The light of the resurrection of Christ lights the Church, and the joy of the resurrection , which is the triumph over death, fills it. The risen Lord lives with us; with the life of the Church being a mysterious life in Christ. Christians bear that name precisely because they belong to Christ, and live in Christ - in His body. Christ did not simply approach humanity, but became one with it. The Church is this unity of life with Him - hence Saint Paul describes this unity by comparing it with the relations between a bride and bridegroom. The Church consists of perfect unity of life, with everlasting fullness. The Church is life in Christ, and as Christians, Christ is indeed within us : 'It is no longer I who live, but Christ who lives in me.' (Gal 2:20) The Church is the work of the Incarnation of Christ - deifying human nature ( with Christ being fully human and fully divine ). The body of Christ also requires the work of the Holy Spirit. In the form of tongues of fire, the Holy Spirit descended upon the Apostles and the world on the day of Pentecost - it is through the Holy Spirit by which we become children of the Father, revealing Christ within us. Really, there can be no satisfactory definition of the Church, but one recognises what the Church is and means when participating in this life in Christ, and experiencing it by grace. We must remember that the Church, in its essence as a divine-human entity, belongs to the realm of the divine. A very important and popular phrase is that the Church is in this world, but not of it!

'Christians must live in this world, but they are not of this world. As the Father sent Christ into this world to minister, so He sends believers to be ministers in the world'
- Titus (3:1-8) Commenting on John 17:14-18

The true life of the Church, lifts us up into the spiritual realm, making us citizens of the heavenly world. This is the life of faith, 'the conviction of things not seen' (Heb 11:1) Everyone who approaches this opportunity of life in Christ will experience this reality of the inner, hidden man - our ecclesial mode of existence, which transcends our biological and worldly mode of existence.

'Let us Love one another, that with one mind we may confess'
 - Divine Liturgy of St John Chrysostom

So far, we have understood the Church to be the Kingdom of God, experienced on earth. The Kingdom of God is a divine reality, of God's presence through Christ and the Holy Spirit. (Rom 14:17) As Christians, we participate in the Lord's Kingdom through the sacramental mysteries of the faith. Even though Christ's rule will come at the end of time, with the Lord filling all creation, 'all, and in all' (Col 3:11), within Christ's body we can truly experience this joy to come through our communion with Him.  Abba Evagrius writes 'the Kingdom of God is knowledge of the Holy Trinity,' and within the Divine Liturgy we hear the important words 'Let us Love one another' in order to confess this faith.. of our Holy, Catholic and Apostolic Church. It is significant that we hear this command, as there is no discrepancy between dogma and love, or between faith and works. 'Whoever says I love God and hates his brother is a liar.' (St John the Evangelist) This is where we see the Church as a reflection of the Holy Trinity, as we should love one another as one united body of Christ, just as our God is Trinity; an eternal, united and loving relationship. (1 John 4:8)  Love is what defines the Church, as we are one united communion under the Triune God.

Sources : 'The Orthodox Church' by Sergius Bulgakov
                'Journey to the Kingdom' by Vassilios Papavassiliou
                ' The Experience of God' by Dimitru Staniloae
        ( Orthodox Church in America )

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