A Voice From The Isles:
The comedian Groucho Marx once quipped: “Marriage is a wonderful institution, but who wants to live in an institution?” Let’s change that to “church.” It now reads and just as funny: “The Church is a wonderful institution, but who wants to live in an institution?” We know that these are funny because instinctively we know that neither the Church nor marriage is a formal society, an institution. We could say that both are organisms rather than organisations. Marriage is an organism because it is the union in one flesh of two persons. It reflects the fact that each partner is a living organism. Likewise the Church is a living organism because it is the union of the Lord Jesus Christ with his followers, collectively his bride the Church. Listen to St. Paul:
“For we are members of His body, of His flesh and of His bones. ‘For this reason a man shall leave his father and mother and be joined to his wife, and the two shall become one flesh.’ This is a great mystery, but I speak concerning Christ and the church.” (Ephesians 5:30-32)
Since Christians are members of the body of Christ and relate to Him as the bride to the groom, the Church can never be thought of as a mere institution. Whereas it is marriage that bring a man and a woman together in a dynamic union growing into the perfection of love, it is baptism that constitutes the Church by bringing together men and women, boys and girls into a covenant relationship of love with Christ. It does this through the forgiveness of sins and the gift of the Holy Spirit. Once in this personal relationship with Christ and empowered by the Holy Spirit the baptised Christian becomes part of a world transforming movement, a truly living organism, the Church.
Now we know that living organisms can be either healthy or unhealthy. Two devastating illnesses common to humankind are arthritis and cancer. Arthritis happens when bodily joints seize up and become painfully rigid through inflammation. Cancer happens when certain cells grow out of control devouring good cells. Both of these diseases can happen spiritually in parts of the Church. Arthritic communities can be become inflamed with passions and then seize up losing all their dynamism and flexibility. Cancerous communities develop when clericalism takes over and devours the body of the church by monopolising all other forms of service and ministry properly belonging to the people.
St. Paul shows us the true apostolic way; that is, keeping church communities in balance with capable leadership exercising oversight alongside ministerial service to God offered by the whole body of believers: men, women, boys and girls. Each believer must have concern for the whole Church in love, offering his or her service in harmony with other members of the Body of Christ to keep that body supple, dynamic and effective. This is what we heard from St. Paul in the epistle read today:
“He Himself gave some to be apostles, some prophets, some evangelists, and some pastors and teachers, for the equipping of the saints for the work of ministry, for the edifying of the body of Christ, till we all come to the unity of the faith and of the knowledge of the Son of God, to a perfect man, to the measure of the stature of the fullness of Christ.” (Ephesians 4:11-13)
This is a healthy body, the body of Christ, functioning as an effective living organism, full of the Holy Spirit, not a lifeless organisation, a dead institution. Apostles, prophets, evangelists, pastors and teachers all contribute in equipping the saints, that is, the believers, in their own different ministries. Historically the deacons used to coordinate all this under the bishop, the presbyters also helping the bishop in his sacramental ministry. This then is the secret of Church growth … everyone playing his or her part as called by God, energised by the Holy Spirit and centred on Christ, continuing the Father’s work of salvation in the world until the Kingdom comes in all its fullness.
This fullness of the Kingdom of God is both personal and cosmic. Personal because we are promised through repentance and sanctification, the “stature of the fullness of Christ” which is our created dignity and glory as human beings. It is cosmic in so far as our restoration and transformation brings the fallen world along with it. The New Creation of the resurrection is geared to the remaking of the Cosmos through us. This is the vision St. John had in his vision in Revelations written down in the very last book of the New Testament.
“Now I saw a new heaven and a new earth, for the first heaven and the first earth had passed away. Also there was no more sea. Then I, John, saw the holy city, New Jerusalem, coming down out of heaven from God, prepared as a bride adorned for her husband.” (Revelation 21:1-2)
There we have it again … that bride and bridegroom image of the Church and Christ. The love of God for all his creatures is a transforming relationship, just like a good marriage. It even leads to a re-creation of the whole Universe through us. Next time, therefore, you think and pray about God’s call to you as Orthodox Christians to serve, remember what is at stake … not just your salvation and those whom you know but the whole of the Cosmos as well! What a wonderful prospect … but also, what a sobering call!