"Gathered In My Name" A Layman’s View of the Orthodox Parish
By Fr. John Shimchick
People gather for various reasons. Sometimes it is purely for friendship. Often it is to support an idea, a position, or a particular person. Other times, people who might normally never agree on constructive issues are united in their rejection of something or someone. People gather to preserve cultures and traditions, which, in essence, are attempts to preserve parts of themselves.
Orthodox Christians gather in their parishes for many of the same reasons. Yet, there lies one unmentioned explanation which distinguishes their gathering from all others. This is based on the words of Jesus Christ: "For where two or three are gathered in my name, there I am in the midst of them" (Matt. 18:20.) Cultures and ideologies have come and gone over the last two thousand years while these words still resound. They remain as the one immovable stumbling block to these who might want the Church to be like some other gathering or club. These words reveal the parish as a temporary place whose existence (just as that of the sacraments and even the priesthood) is to prepare people to enter the Kingdom of God -- the place where Christ will always be in their midst. The purpose of this article is to show from a layman's perspective that, while other images reveal to us aspects of parish life, the image given to us in Matthew 18:20 still remains the essential one.
We Build on a Foundation
No parish, even the newest mission, is ever built completely new or in isolation from the rest of the Orthodox world. Rather, there is a certain foundation which precedes both its physical and spiritual structures. For many people it is a reference to the "faith of our fathers" (or forefathers) that has become the basis for their membership in the Orthodox Church and attendance at its services.
This remembrance in itself
is not bad. In his letter to Timothy, St. Paul wrote, "... as for you,
continue in what you have learned and have firmly believed, knowing from whom
you learned it" (11 Tim. 3:14-15.) the idea of preserving what has been
"handed down" is an important Orthodox concept, and there is much
to be learned from our ancestors' approach to church life. In fact, we are now
seeing in America the end of that unique generation of Orthodox believers. While
there is generally a real value in imitating the religious life of our ancestors,
it is important that this be done not simply because it was their faith, but
because it was and is the true faith. This might lead one at times to re-evaluate,
view of different historical circumstances, certain positions held by ancestors, and then to choose to act differently. An appreciation for the past need not condemn us to re-living particular problems and mistakes; we can still be open to all that is good, holy, and true. Here I am reminded of a conversation between two elderly Russian women. One of them was lamenting how the church was changing. The other replied, "Yes, that's true, my dear, but so are we!" Let us accept the rich tradition which we have inherited, but also be willing to add to it. This is perfectly expressed in the Gospel when our Lord says that "every scribe who has been trained for the Kingdom of Heaven is like a householder who
brings out of his treasure what is new and what is old" (Matt. 13:52.)
By building on a foundation that is true, we also have the assurance of building on something that will last. In a real sense, the history of our Church in America bears witness that the foundation which we have been given will survive. Our Lord even said that "the powers of death shall not prevail against it" (Matt. 16:18.) But will that structure merely exist, or will it be alive and growing? In an age so filled with the remembrance of achievements, one might wonder how much of what we now regard as being important will remain with the Church. How much of what we have done will be remembered forever? St. Paul wrote to the Corinthians that:
According to the commission of God given to me, like a
skilled master builder I laid a foundation, and another
man is building upon it. Let each man take care how he
builds it. For no other foundation can any lay than that
which is laid, which is Jesus Christ. Now if any one
builds on the foundation with gold, silver, precious
stones, wood, hay, stubble - each man's work will become
manifest; for the Day will disclose it, because it will
be revealed with fire; and the fire will test what sort
of work each one has done. If the work which any man
has built on the foundation survives, he will receive a
reward. If any man's work is burned up, he will suffer
loss, though he himself will be saved, but only through
fire (I Cor. 3:10-15.)
From St. Paul's Epistle to the Hebrews one learns that everything which can be shaken will be removed "in order that what cannot be shaken will remain. Therefore, let us be grateful for receiving a Kingdom that cannot be shaken" (12:27-28.) Finally, at the end of the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus gives this warning:
Every one then who hears these words of mine and does them
will be like a wise man who built his house upon the rock;
and the rain fell, and the floods came, and the winds blew
and beat upon that house, but it did not fall, because it
had been founded on the rock. And every one who hears
these words of mine and does not do them will be like a
foolish man who built his house upon the sand; and the
rain fell, and the floods came, and the winds blew and
beat against that house, and it fell; and great was the
fall of it (Matt. 7:24-27.)
We not only build the spiritual structure of our parish upon the foundation of faith, but we also become that structure. An early Christian writer compared the upbuilding of the Church to the construction of a tower. Though different-sized stones were used, the structure seemed to be built of a single stone. St. Peter used the same idea in encouraging believers to "Come to Him, to that living stone, rejected by men but in God's sight chosen and precious, and like living stones be yourself built into a spiritual house" (1 Pet. 2:4-5.) So it is with out parishes. Many people of varied talents and personalities unite to form what is, we may hope, a single house -- a community.
We Are United in One Body
When people meet together
in the Lord's name they overcome whatever differences they have as individuals
and form a single body. This body, with individual members still responsible
for separate functions (an eye cannot be a hand), has Jesus Christ as its head.
We become members of this body when we are baptized. It has often been said,
using the words of the baptismal procession, that though many have been baptized
into Christ, few have actually put on Christ. Few people take their membership
and the responsible use of their talents seriously. The result is that a few
members must do all of the functions for the rest of the body. So while the
eyes and arms may get strong (and usually tired) the legs become weak and the
ears do not function at all. Instead of a finely-coordinated
body that lives and grows, one has an abnormal body, alive but with limited goals and not much of a future.
Each member is crucial for the survival of the whole body and, as such, each member is connected to the other. This means that whatever even the least important member of the parish does or experiences somehow has an effect on the rest of the members. St. Paul wrote that "If one member suffers, all suffer together; if one member is honored, all rejoice together" (I Cor. 12:26.)
We Have Been Given the Seeds of Eternal Life
When the body is functioning well, Christ is able to use it to "spread the fragrance of the knowledge of Him everywhere" (11 Cor. 2:14.) The parish then becomes the agent by which the seeds of faith (and of new life) can be planted in others. There is often, however, some confusion concerning the kind of seeds and the best way to plant them. St. Paul described the situation well when he spoke about people who "have a zeal for God, but it is not enlightened" (Rom. 10:2.) One can attend countless bazaars and programs, hear about culture, traditions, music, icons, food, and all kinds of other things that have been "handed down," and still miss any references to the real content of the faith. It seems that we have invested our time and energy in seeds that will produce plants unable to bear any fruit. We are told in the Gospel that the fate of such plants is to be "cut down and thrown into the fire" (Matt. 3:10; John 15:1-8.) Yet culture and local traditions do have their places and deserve to be preserved, but they must not be allowed to occupy the primary role in our ministry to others.
The previous examples of the foundation, the body, and the seeds offer three distinct, though related, images of the parish. Primarily, they imply that the parish is something which grows. This growth, however, has two sides. One Orthodox writer described it well when he said that "a parish can be improved, but only people can be saved."
"A parish can be improved..." A beautiful church with wonderful icons and an excellent choir may be just a well-preserved museum or concert hall. A parish may have hundreds of communicants and many varied programs, yet manifest a self-centered and misleading approach to the faith. Growth in itself is not always the answer, for too often success is judged simply by size and numbers and not by quality.
"...Only people can be saved." The parish must not become an end in itself. It can only be the vehicle by which its members are saved. The people must not only grow in numbers, but in the quality of their faith. A Christian writer once wrote that, "Here below, to live is to change and to be perfect is to have changed often." To call ourselves Christians and to gather in the Lord's name requires nothing less than this attempt to "be perfect as your heavenly Father is perfect" (Matt. 5:48.)
We Must Be Willing to Change
It is necessary at this point to distinguish between the unchangeable dogma and Tradition of the Church and the local traditions and customs which have constantly changed throughout the centuries. Since the Church in its essence is both true and indestructible, the Church -- in being One, Holy, Catholic, and Apostolic -- is unchanging. For us, the faithful, to understand this, we must constantly be growing both in our knowledge of the faith and in the realization (and amazement!) that there is so much more to know. Of course, this requires a gradual but continual change in our own view of ourselves. As the Church has grown in relation to various problems and circumstances, it has maintained such a view. It has frequently changed some of its local traditions which might have become distorted, so that the eternal essence would remain unharmed and the same. In our parish life, however, one often finds people who are stubbornly content with what they know about their faith. As a result, it is the local traditions which unfortunately come to seem eternal and unchangeable.
The changes referred to here cannot begin in the externals of Church (or even parish) life, but must begin in the inner lives of the believers This will insure that the change comes about through purity of heart and a firm desire to seek and do what is true. This is not just the responsibility of theologians and priests, but also of the entire laity, who are, in the original meaning, all part of the "people of God." These are the people who throughout the ages have longed most of all to hear these words: "Well done, good and faithful servant; you have been faithful over a little, I will set you over much; enter into the joy (and midst) of your master" (Matt. 25:23.)
John Shirnchick is the Choir Director of the Assumption of the Virgin Mary Church in Binghamton, N. Y., and is a member of the Department of Stewardship and Lay Ministries.
Taken from the OCA Resource Handbook for Lay Ministries