(What follows is the From the Pastor column from the 2012 Summer Newsletter:)
Being Church in an age of “Sound Bites” and Labels
When people meet me for the first time I’m almost always asked (after “What religion are you?”) about what kind Orthodox are we; does one have to be Greek to visit, let alone be a member in our church; What activities/ministries do we have; what’s our sanctuary look like, etc. Whether one is looking for a new parish or religion (33% of Americans will change their religion at least once) or just curious, people have a “litmus test” that they believe is the “one thing” that may be the defining totality of a Community (why Churches are described in ethnic, racial terms or socio-economic make-up and/or its activities, etc.. ).
The word “mission” can conjure up images of a very small church struggling to grow (whether domestic or in foreign lands) or something resembling a “rescue mission shelter.” People hear of ministries to those in prison, and/or in recovery from substance abuse or other addictions and imagine a church primarily for those dealing with those issues (and often, by implication, membership is for people whose family members or they themselves have those struggles). Connecting the word “Greek” in terms of Church too often could mean (for those “within” and “outside”) membership is primarily for those born or “married into” a family of that ethnic identity (rather than the cosmopolitan understanding of Hellenism mentioned later in this issue), which is as ludicrous as seeing “Roman” Catholics all being Italian in origin. “Labels” (even positive ones), whether single or all together, can never define the full meaning of Church.
…the priority is first what it means “to be” Church, out of which ministries are birthed
Modern popular (mostly well-intended) charismatic and evangelical culture focuses on “discovering gifts and ministries” that develop and have a life of their own. Ministries can (and do) change with time and many according to need. However, the priority is first what it means “to be” Church, out of which ministries are birthed, otherwise even they (ministries) can become just “one among the other activities” done in a community. New Testament scholar, N.T. Wright observes about the Book of Acts, “It is about the church living as a new community, giving allegiance to Jesus as Lord rather than to the kings and chief priests who rule the Jewish world or emperor or magistrates who rule the non-Jewish world,” (Simply Jesus, pg. 204). Being Christian, and therefore, Church, (which Scripture sees marriage or military service as analogous to it) can never be “Sunday only” situation that helps in (or is an escape from) one’s “real life.” Church is what frames and laces every aspect of our life.
“It is about the church living as a new community, giving allegiance to Jesus as Lord…”
While the above (and other) ministries are part of St Matthew’s, our worship is congregational, 99+% in English, never denying that the New Testament was written in Greek (the ‘everyday language” of the Roman Empire) and used in worship then (even in Rome till the 5th century), and work to see people from all cultures and walks of life integrated into the life of God’s Kingdom, we have not “captured” nor define all of what it means to be Church-it is an eternally ongoing process. This is why Jesus speaks of the Spirit as a river (John 7: 38) or an artisan (Jn 4: 14) well that we constantly need to drink from and bathe in to allow God to constantly refresh and shape the softened clay until we are made perfectly complete in the “image and likeness” of His Son (at the Parousia, as “when He appears, we will be like Him for we will see Him as He is” -I John 3: 2). We continually, personally and as a Eucharistic Community, call upon the Holy Spirit to make us “malleable” in God’s hands as He sees fit. Pentecost is about extending that Reality lived through humanity (after all, we are the Faith of the Incarnation) to allow us to work for Christ’s already established Kingdom that will be completely joined to earth at the Parousia. Our worship, personal prayer, service to others, relationships and how we respond (rather than react) to the Lord in the midst of difficulties and suffering seem to be the tools used to form us.
Jesus speaks of the Spirit as a river (John 7: 38) or an artisan (Jn 4: 14) well that we constantly need to drink from and bathe in…
This year St Matthew’s hosted the Eastern Region (Pittsburgh Metropolis) Oratorical Festival last April 28 for the junior and senior high school groupings. Our many thanks to own Cheryl Tutella who co-chaired and did most of organizing and coordinating of the Event, and Maria Griffith who organized the refreshments (and of which was commended by the Metropolis Youth Office as “the best and most organized regional Oratorical Festival” and seen as a model for others throughout the Archdiocese at large).
We were also blessed to have Robert and Denise Kopicz chrismated into the Orthodox Faith as members of St Matthew’s. Both have grown in their love of the Lord by constantly looking for (and being present to) ways of serving Him within the Church as well as in participation in the worship. May God grant them many blessed years within this Body of Christ.
We were blessed to have the first visit of our new Hierarch, Metropolitan Savas, at the “Apokathilosis” (“De-nailing”) Service on Great Friday. I was very surprised and extremely touched at the Parish’s gift of the Cross given then and placed on me by His Eminence. Knowing how long they waited (years, due to Metropolitan Maximos’ health issues) and persistently tried at times to get the Cross “blessed” was and is very humbling. Words cannot begin to express the gratitude and appreciation for this Community that works so hard to be supportive (even when I am away doing retreats/giving talks). I look forward to many more years of being with this Community that works to grow as Church, celebrating the Reality of Christ’s Rule on earth based in this Eucharistic Gathering and not working to save entities called “souls” (we are, after all, the Faith of the Incarnation, “looking forward to the resurrection of the dead and the life of the Age to come”), but all of humanity and the whole of creation.