Dear Parish Faithful,
Christ is Risen! Indeed He is Risen!
Many of us enjoyed another lively and vibrant Bible Study yesterday evening, as we read and discussed ACTS 2, and the great event of Pentecost. The descent of the Holy Spirit "like the rush of a mighty wind" and in the form of tongues "as of fire," (v. 2-3) established the New Testament Church. We are in direct historical, doctrinal, and sacramental continuity with that Church to this day as the One, Holy, Catholic and Apostolic Church. The Faith and practice of the apostolic Church is therefore the divinely-established "norm" or 'model" for all future Christian generations, including our own. We must not only uphold and defend that Faith, but share it with the world around us. Though much further developed in its expression (theology, liturgy, iconography, etc.), the content of the Faith remains unchanging, as it has been handed down to us. The "content," of course, is centered in the fact that "this Jesus God raised up, and of that we are all witnesses." (v. 32)
Toward the end of Ch. 2, and following St. Peter's public preaching in Jerusalem that led to thousands of converts to Christ through baptism(v. 22-41), there is a short but fascinating and highly revealing description of what constituted the life of the early Church in Jerusalem. As the 'mother Church" for all local Orthodox Churches to this day, the Jerusalem Church remains the "model" spoken of above. And thus any Orthodox parish- though living in a vastly different world culturally and socially - will reflect the same Faith and practice under and within today's changed circumstances. In other words, the description in ACTS should be a description of our own parishes An "outsider" in the form of an inquirer, seeker, guest, should recognize the similarity between both the initial "parish" in Jerusalem and our parish in the contemporary world. The evangelist and historian St. Luke relates the following:
And they held steadfastly to the apostles's teaching and fellowship, to the breaking of bread and to the prayers. (RSV - ACTS 2:42)
As the famous Orthodox scholar Jaroslav Pelikan wrote, this verse is not only descriptive of the history of the early Church, but prescriptive, "as an itemized list of the criteria by which the church in any age would both preserve and manifest its continuity with the apostles." (Brazos Commentary on Acts, p. 58)
We read first that the earliest Christians "held steadfast" to the new way of life that they were baptized into. This means that they "persisted," "persevered," and "continued" despite many challenges to their newly found faith in Christ. And that included the threat of persecution. It is our responsiblity today to remain steadfast regardless of the challenge. To return to Jaroslav Pelikan's commentary on this verse, he breaks down this continuity with the apostles into four categories:
1. Apostolic "doctrine" (Gk. didache). He writes further: 'Central to this "doctrine of the apostles' ... was the witness to the resurrection of Christ, together with the confession 'I believe that Jesus Christ is the Son of God'." The initial apostolic doctrine was later clarified and expanded into the Nicene-Constantinopolitan Creed of the fourth c. that is still used as our confession of the 'doctrine of the apostles' to this day in the Church. There is no such thing as a doctrine-less Christianity, and one of the main - if not major - reasons for the breakdown in the Christian world today in the realm of morality and ethics is that Christians have lost the connection between "doctrine" and life. To abandon the apostolic doctrine is to abandon the ground for all Christian morality, ethical life and spirituality.
2. Apostolic "fellowship" (Gk. koinonia). St. John Chrysostom writes of this passage, that "the fellowship was not only in prayers, nor in doctrine alone, but also in social relations." Fellowship here implies a deep personal communion between believers. Christians belong to the one Body of Christ as integral members of it. They support one another in both good and bad times, in sorrows and rejoicing. A Christian community is not simply the place that individuals gather together for their own "religious needs;" but a place where a genuine community is formed over time through the "hard work" of "bearing one another's burdens" (GAL. 6:2) The goal is to break through all wordly forms of divisiveness - ethnic, racial, socio-economic, etc. Thus, a shared"social life" implies more than superficial conversation over a cup of coffee when the Liturgy has ended!
3. Apostolic "breaking of bread" (Gk. ti klasei tou artou) and other sacraments. This is a clear reference to the Eucharist, the heart and soul of the Church's life from the beginning in fulfillment of Christ's words: "Do this in remembrance of me." (LK. 22:19) To share the Chalice with your neighbor, is to commit to the "fellowship" and all of its implications as outlined above. It means to commit to a eucharistic way of life, based on the rhythm of preparing for the Eucharist and living a life in conformity of having Christ dwelling within us through His shared Body and Blood. We also practice Baptism and Chrismation, the two sacraments/mysteries that bring into the household of Faith. The other Sacraments/Mysteries are based on the words of Christ, or the apostolic Tradition as it developed.
4. Apostolic "prayer" (Gk. euche) and worship. The Christian parish is first and foremost a praying community; it is a center of prayer. For every Christian is a "being of prayer." Our prayer is offered as thanksgiving, glorification, intercession, supplication, lamentation, etc. The term as used by St. Luke could refer to "more or less fixed texts and liturgical forms: the Lord's Prayer in a special category ..." We pray that our prayer is "from the heart," coming forth from real faith, and not something mechanical and lifeless, according to the prescribed "rubrics." The seekers, inquirers, guests mentiioned above will be able to tell the difference, and that may very well determine if they will return or not on a permanent basis.
There are other essential aspects to a vibrant parish, including charity, and St. Luke describes these at great length throughout the ACTS OF THE APOSTLES. Yet, these four areas are normative and cannot be missing if any given parish has the desire to continue in the ways of the apostolic Faith, "which was once for all delivered to the saints." As Orthodox Christians that is our task, a responsibility for which we will answer to God ultimately. This is how we teach and train our children in godliness. And this is how we witness to the world around us.