THE MEANING OF CHURCHHome > Spirituality > THE MEANING OF CHURCH
Word Magazine December 1990 Page 5-6
THE MEANING OF CHURCH
by Deacon Germanos Guthrie E. Janssen
Church is the most important, most glorious entity on the face of the earth, or in the universe. It is not just a gathering of Christians, but the very presence of Jesus Christ, God Himself, in our midst. It is the glory of eternity, of heaven, of the kingdom breaking into time and permitting us to participate in it. The early Church understood and experienced this.
Fifty days after Easter, we celebrate the Feast of Pentecost, the birthday of the Church, On that day, the Church was born in a sound “like the mighty rush of a wind,” so rousing that St. Peter had to announce that the people were not all drunk. He then preached a sermon explaining what was going on. Every Christian should read the second chapter of Acts and meditate on what Christians received then and what we have now. Something has been lost. If we were to pray earnestly as a body to get it back, I am certain that God would give it. We are starving without it. We are a spiritually emaciated people. The reason is disobedience. God is ashamed of us, for He says He is a Father who feeds His children. How would we feel if our children were so skinny and sickly that people said, “Don’t they ever feed their children?” And we would have to say, “We have plenty of fresh fruit, vegetables, bread, and good meat and fish to give them, but they won’t eat it. All they want is junk food.” By our spiritual disobedience, we become sickly, and a disgrace to God. Is this the way to treat Him to whom we owe everything?
In many Orthodox parishes I see a little box in a corner with a sign that says, “Food for the Hungry,” and in the box are a few surplus cans of beans, packages of spaghetti, etc., and I am upset. Why? The reason has nothing to do with the pious notion of distributing cans of beans and other food to people who need them, for that we should certainly do. What upsets me is that “Food for the Hungry” should be a banner six feet high over the front door of the Church. For Jesus Christ is the true food, the very “bread of life” (John 6:35). We live on Him in the Eucharist. Read the gospels and see how much there is in them about food and how much God our Father desires to feed us with food that will truly sustain us and give us life. He desires this so earnestly that He gives us the flesh and blood of His very own Son to feed on. Would we do this with our only son? I dare say not. Yet God has done it. Church is a feast, and God Himself furnishes the food, and it is glorious, the most nourishing there is. Nothing else can give life. Offer people cans of beans without offering them also this heavenly food and we have made but a gesture, and God hates mere gestures. Do we not care enough about our neighbors to invite them to participate in the most glorious event in the whole universe? We must remember that God commanded us to love them in precisely the same degree to which we love ourselves. There is an important corollary here: if we do not love our neighbor, it is clear evidence that we do not and cannot love ourselves, for that is a law of human life as God created it.
God’s banquet is prepared by His priests according to His instructions, and He commands us to compel people to come in and feast and be filled! (Luke 14:23). Where are these people? They are all around us, in the “highways and hedges”; they are those who would read that six foot high banner, if only we would post it. We are surrounded by starving people. Let us urge, invite, cajole, lead, require them to come in, as Jesus commands us.
Observe what the priest does: in the prayer of consecration, he takes the elements of the banquet, the diskarion with the bread and the chalice with the wine and he elevates them crosswise saying, “Thine own of thine own we offer unto thee, in behalf of all, and for all,” (Antiochian Service Book, p. 113). The priest is representing us, speaking for us, and he is interceding for all, not just us. Who are those “all” who are not just us? They are still in the highways and hedges. We haven’t even invited them to come in. We haven’t so much as told them there is a banquet awaiting them. No, we hide the sign, “Food for the Hungry” in a dark corner of the narthex. We attempt to huddle in ethnic exclusivity and keep the banquet for ourselves. What hypocrisy! What does God do with people like that? He will take away their temple and their banquet.
One hears people say “We need a new church.” They do indeed, but not in the way they think. They need a church with the vitality of the Holy Spirit in it. Merely a new building is an abomination to God, and it will be a curse to the people. It will be dead. “Well,” they say “then we need to work harder.” Indeed they do. “Church work” is for many today a pious notion, like beans for the hungry. It is thought to involve bazaars and ladies’ meetings and serving on committees. God does not despise these things, but they are housekeeping matters, fund-raising and social affairs, not the meat of the matter.
Let us pay close attention here and make no mistake about it and never forget it: Church work is Divine Liturgy. Liturgy comes from two Greek words meaning work of the people. That is the only “church work” God cares about; or, rather, if Liturgy is not primary and central, the rest is meaningless. Yet what happens? People who never missed a plane or a bus in their lives think nothing of arriving late for the Church work God Himself appointed them to do. And even then they often make chitchat among themselves while only dimly aware that the priest is doing something or other at the altar. We in the congregation must realize that the priest, in every word he utters, is speaking our prayer, and we must pay attention word by word to what he is saying, for if what he is saying is not truly our prayer, then we make him a liar and ourselves hypocrites, and God Himself will judge us for it, and our God is a consuming fire (Heb. 12:29). Let us never forget what God said to the Church at Sardis: “I know your works; you have the name of being alive (having lots of social activities?),and you are dead” (Rev. 3:1). He warns them then to “wake up and strengthen what remains and is on the point of death. . .” (Rev. 3:2). Otherwise, he says, “I will come like a thief, and you will not know at what hour I will come upon you.” And what does a thief do? He takes away all that we have and puts us out of business.
Love and Obedience
What does it take to revive a parish? It takes love and obedience, and the two are “one package.”
Someone will say “Well, I love God, but as for obedience, I’m my own person. This is a free country, and I decide what I am going to do.” Indeed you do, but you’d better opt for obedience, for without it you cannot give love nor receive it.
It was Jesus Himself who made the connection between love and obedience, and it is a necessary condition for a life of grace. He said, “If you love me you will obey my commands” (John 14:15). If love is the “electricity” of life, obedience is the wire we must “plug in” to obtain it. But obedience today is not popular. It is more popular to be disobedient. That is one reason why there is so little love in the world. The circuit that feeds human life with love is broken by our failure to obey and love is lost. Worse, we lose our salvation. Have you ever heard of anyone being saved through obedience to his or her own personal desires and inclinations? Adam and Eve tried it, and look what happened.
The commands of Jesus are found throughout the New Testament, and they number about 150. All of us who count ourselves Christian must obey them. This means especially that we must obey those who employ them to minister to us, for they also are acting in obedience (John 21:17).
Jesus has placed in his Church agents to act with authority in his name. Those agents are called bishops, and under them are priests acting with the bishops’ authority. Their words are commands of Christ!
I hear people saying, “Well, I love our priest, but he’s just the man we hired to lead the services.” Such a thought, expressed or not, is an abomination to God, for it is a lie you cannot love and have things your own way. Hebrews 13:17 must be engraved on the mind and heart of every Christian: “Obey your leaders and submit to them; for they are keeping watch over your souls, as men who will have to give account.” When the priest says (however politely), “Come to Divine Liturgy,” that is God’s command. To refuse it without good cause is to be flagrantly disobedient to God. When the priest says, “Bring your children to Sunday School,” we’d better do it, for it is God’s command.
To whom will the priest have to give account? To God Himself! Will we embarrass our priest before God? Will we force him to say to God, “My flock are a disobedient people”? That will be to our condemnation. Is that what we want?
“Well,” says the independent church-person, “I’ll not force my priest to do anything, or let him force me.” No, nor will he. Nor will God. But they both care, and so are grieved.
To live a disobedient life is to separate ourselves from Jesus Christ. To pretend after that to be a Christian is to live a lie, and we instinctively hate ourselves for it. When we return to God in obedience, he returns to us (James 4:8) and gives us the joy and freedom (Gal. 5:1) we could not find without Him, and we then begin to love ourselves and others.
We in North America are a gravely disobedient people, and by the same token our reservoir of love is very low. Mere glad-handedness and sociability are not evidences of love. Evidence of love is a thriving, burgeoning Church, with the Holy Spirit present in such power that no one can fail to notice it. To achieve this requires deep humility on our part. Let us remember that the sin of Adam and Eve was disobedience and pride (the two go together) and they lost Paradise because of it.
“Come now;’ someone says, “it was Satan made them do it.” On the contrary Satan had no power to make them do anything; it was their choice. Disobedience means the loss of everything. God’s words through His agents are commanding. Hell is precisely that place where we no longer pray “thy will be done,” for no will is exercised in hell but our own. One wonders if some of us maybe practicing to live there. But if we obey God, will He not help us? Obedience is the most powerful prayer we can offer, for it is not mere words but a deed from the heart.
“So what do I get in return for obedience?” asks the cynic. Love, and with it forgiveness, divine food, the very bread of heaven, the experience of the kingdom here and now, peace, a new life of joy with new brothers and sister (Mark 3:35). What else can we desire. This is glory and this is Church, and that is why it is the most important thing on the face of the earth, or in the universe.
Deacon G. Janssen is author of To Love is to Obey: Living the Commands of Jesus, published recently by Holy Cross Orthodox Press. He and his wife are members of St. George Church, Portland, Ore. As we go to press, we have learned of the falling asleep in the Lord of Deacon Janssen. May his blessed soul rest in eternal peace!