Why do I need to go to Church in order to believe in Christ?
The prevailing image of the Church amongst most people today is that of an organized religion with a distinct code of rules, a conglomeration of laws and complex structures. The Church is simply thought to be an institution in society alongside other institutions fulfilling the needs of people side by side with other entities like business, government, labour and entertainment. These people are happy to allot a role to the Church as long as it does not interfere in the functions of the other agencies. However, understood only as a society, entirely integrated in the world, the Church can lose its world-transforming power if it remains a mere institution alongside others. On the other hand, other people believe that Jesus did leave the keys to His kingdom to the Church as we read in St Matthew’s Gospel (cf 16.9), but it would appear to them today, that the Church has lost those keys. And for this reason you hear many people say, “Jesus yes, Church no!”
But the Church is not a mere human society but has both a human and divine character. The Church is Christ throughout the ages; it is the body of Christ present in the world today. For this reason, whilst it is true that the Church is in the world, it is something more – it is the body of Christ – that is, God incarnate “prolonged unto the ages”. And one needs to be in communion participating in the life of this body if one wants to be considered a member of the Church. Christianity is not simply knowing certain facts about Christ but experiencing Him through the life in the Church; by literally “eating and drinking” Christ Himself in the gift of Holy Communion.
It becomes apparent just how important it is to participate in the very life of the Church. One needs to be grafted upon the Church which and not stand afar simply knowing certain facts about it. Just like any organ or part of our body, as healthy as it may be in itself, cannot exist isolated from all other parts of the body, since there is an interdependence between all parts of our body, so too, human persons, as healthy as they may think they are alone, need one another if they want to live the fullness of life and not just survive. To be part of this body means precisely a distinct way of existing whereby we commune life; that is we exist only because we participate in the life-giving unity of the unified body.
It is not our individual virtues or attributes which will save us but our participation in the body of Christ which is the Church. And the centre of this communion is the Eucharist where we share the common nourishment of life; that is the body and blood of Christ which the fathers of the Church have called the bread of immortality. In this way, not only can we become one with Christ but we become one with all those present in this communal event. The human person must overcome this false sense of security that it is better to remain alone since there is no danger in getting hurt because living life in this way, totally isolated from others, leads to our death whilst still alive. Rather, the true destiny of human persons is to exist the way God exists, that is free – free from the bounds of death; loving – that is ceasing to draw their existence from their individuality which is corrupt and mortal and instead seeking the freedom of personal relationships – a life as communion of love.
What true sense of comfort and peace of mind being in this sign of solidarity between those around us. The greatest gift that the Church gives us is not simply teachings about Christ and salvation but Christ Himself and salvation itself since God promises that He is present in His Church. I end with a beautiful quote from Genesis regarding the Church: “How awesome is this place! This is none other than the house of God, and this is the gate of heaven!” (Gen 28:17)
If God loves us, why does he allow suffering?
Firstly, we must remember that many times we all worry over things that we do not need to worry about. We may think we are suffering, whereas in reality we are worrying unnecessarily. It has been said: “If someone throws a dagger at you, it makes all the difference if you catch it by the blade or catch it by the handle.” Two people may be going through the same illness or other hardship, one may see it as a catastrophe, and the other may be a lot more patient and at peace.
Secondly it needs to be acknowledged that a lot of suffering occurs because of the faults and shortcomings of others. Some people are difficult to live with, cannot accept that they are wrong, have a huge temper, are selfish, greedy, etc. If God had pre-programmed all of us to be considerate, loving, humble etc, there would be a lot less suffering in the world. In response we need to explain that God has created us free, and that there is an enormous beauty in freedom.
On this issue of the trials we go through due to others we need to point out that the Fathers of our Church encourage us to actually see these trials as a type of blessing. For example if someone criticizes us we could respond with anger, or by becoming depressed. It is better however to realise that by being criticized we are being helped to achieve something we all desperately need: humility. If someone does something very unfair to us, again this has the potential to help us grow spiritually.
We can struggle to forgive them, and have the faith that God will bring justice. In general, if we are patient and tolerant with difficult people we are on the road that the saints walked on, a road that leads to the Kingdom of Heaven.
Why does God, who loves us so much, allow suffering? A number of points need to be raised:
1. We have been assured by the Bible that if God has allowed us to go through suffering, He knows that it is not greater than our ability to cope with it. “No temptation has seized you except what is common to man. And God is faithful; he will not let you be tempted beyond what you can bear. But when you are tempted, he will also provide a way out so that you can stand up under
it.” (1 Corinthians 10:13)
2. God knows better than us what is good for us.
3. A few years of suffering, even decades of suffering, is very tiny compared to eternity of happiness in Heaven, and if our patience helps to lead us to heaven, then it is worth it.
4. We can grow through suffering. Our Archbishop Stylianos once said, “There is a secret law, that God has put into the depths of his creations: that they will discover their best self not when they have worldly ease and wealth, but through suffering, poverty and humility. When the olive is beaten, it produces oil, when the oyster is injured, it produces a pearl.” Through suffering our eyes can open, we can realize things that previously we just could not comprehend. Through suffering can come character. “We rejoice in our sufferings, knowing that suffering produces endurance, and endurance produces character, and character produces hope, and hope does not disappoint us, because God’s love has been poured into our hearts through the Holy Spirit which has been given to us.” (Romans 5:3)
5. No-one can comfort another person who is suffering as well as someone who has suffered themselves.
Some atheists use science to say our “faith is a delusion”. How can we respond?
If we think deeply and sincerely, and meditate on we see and feel around us and within us, then we could suspect that being an atheist is a delusion. Indeed, to believe that all that we see around us and within us is simply here by an enormous fluke, that we are part of a vast and purposeless universe, is surely a lot harder to believe than belief in God. Deep inside us we all have an intuition, something that we cannot express in words or with reasoning, that there is a purpose to life, that the beauty we can experience cannot be there by a fluke, and that there is a God. As the famous mathematician Pascal once said, “The heart has its reasons that reason knows not.”
Some of you may be thinking that the beauty of nature does not prove that God exists, because science has been able to explain how this diversity and order came about. It is true that science has offered explanations for a lot of phenomena, however as science progresses it has introduced new questions, and many good scientists feel that science has if anything increased their faith in God. For example, in recent years physicists have realised that the universe contains some very basic constants, for example the speed of light, the force that binds protons and neutrons together, and if these were even a fraction of a percent different then there would be no solar system, no life. The probability of all these constants being “just right” to enable planets to go around the sun, to enable the formation of carbon, and ultimately to make life possible is so incredibly unlikely that it seems absurd to believe that it all happened without a creator. The most remarkable molecule in the universe is without a doubt DNA.
Evolution cannot explain the formation of DNA, this molecule, and the fact that it very occasionally makes a mistake when it replicates, is the basis of evolution. It has been worked out by scientists that the chance of random chemical reactions forming DNA is 10 to the power of 40,000. This number is really huge! The number of atoms is the universe is about 10 to the 80th power!
If you are an atheist then you would have to believe that the mind is explained only by the electrical circuits that occur in your brain, you would not believe in the soul. In recent times philosophers and brain scientists have increasingly delved into this difficult area. They have identified what they call the “hard problem.” Aspects of the mind such as memory, the ability to play chess, etc, are not trivial but not “hard”. For example computers can play chess and have memory. What is “hard” to understand, and what no computer can do, is aspects of the mind such as self awareness. What we can be more sure about than anything else is the fact that we are aware of our own selves, we can not only think and love and feel, we are also aware of ourselves thinking and feeling these things. No computer can do this. Is this self awareness due to physical circuits in my brain? If we think deeply about these things – think about our own thinking – then we can come to a conviction that surely we have inside us something that is beyond the physical, what we in the Church call soul.
There is a lot more one could say, but space does not permit. Many of the readers of this article may have experienced miracles in their lives, very many of you may have experienced how beautiful it is to be a Christian, how the ways of the Bible and of the Church really work, really do bring peace and happiness, a peace that is different to what the world offers (John 14:27).
Ultimately, what can lead us to true and genuine faith, a faith that can change our lives and make us want to give ourselves to the Church and into the hands of Jesus, is not scientific or philosophical arguments, but the Grace of God. Faith is a gift – a gift to the humble and to the genuine and sincere.
What is the Orthodox Church?
The Emperor Constantine having brought the persecutions of the Christians to an end, brought at the same time peace to the Church. But this was not to last.
The Church was now facing enemies not from the outside but from inside. These were the heretics, who although Christians were altering the teachings of the Church, by mixing them with their own distorted ideas. And what is more they were spreading those ideas with great fanaticism.
A Heresy consists of teachings that are contrary to the official teachings of the whole Church. The first and most serious of the heresies was that taught by Arius, a Christian priest from Alexandria.
He was teaching that our Lord and Saviour Jesus Christ was not equal to God the Father, but that He was the most perfect being created by God before the creation of the world. The ideas of Arius were condemned by the local Synod of Alexandria, but his teachings were spreading like wildfire, threatening the unity of the Church as well of the Empire. To restore the peace of both, the pious Emperor Constantine, called all the Bishops of the universal Church to a Synod – the first Ecumenical Synod – which took place in Nicene (Nikaia), a town near Constantinople, in the year 325 AD.
The 318 holy Fathers of the Church who took part in the Synod, declared with the help of the Holy Spirit ” that Jesus Christ is God and of the same substance as the Father, without beginning and eternal “. The Synod also formulated the first seven articles of the Creed (the Nicean Creed), which deal with the essence of the Father and the Son.
The holy Fathers condemned Arius and his teachings, but he remained unrepentant, and was exiled by the Emperor. The followers of Arius continued to cause upheaval in the Church, and peace was only restored when the Emperor, Theodosius the Great, imposed the decisions of the Synod as obligatory for everyone, thus establishing the triumph of the Orthodox Faith!
What is the Priesthood?
The sacrament of the Priesthood, was instituted by our Lord Jesus Christ, when He selected His Apostles to be his successors and those who were to continue His work on earth. The priests (clergy) are themselves the successors of the Apostles to this day.
The ordination of a cleric (bishop, priest or deacon) takes place during the Divine Liturgy.
Priests can only be ordained by a bishop, who places his hands upon the head of the upon him so he can fulfil his vocation. However, it is the High Priest, Jesus Christ, who actually performs the sacraments through His Holy Spirit, whilst the priests are His visible servants on earth for the performance of these sacraments.
There are three offices of the priesthood: –
1. Bishop – He can perform all the sacraments, especially that of ordination of the clergy. He is obliged to teach the people the truth of the Gospel, maintain correctly the teachings (dogmas) of the Church, and govern his diocese not only in spiritual but also in practical matters.
2. Priest – He can perform all the sacraments except that of ordination, and hear the confessions of the faithful, after special permission by the bishop.
3. Deacon – He helps the bishop or the priest to perform the sacraments, but he himself cannot alone perform any of them.
The office of the clergy is enormously responsible and their calling is directly from God, so the faithful have a duty to obey them, support them and honour them.
Are Orthodox Christians?
Yes, we are Christian because Christ is the head of our Church and the reason for our existence. Orthodox is a Greek word meaning “right worship” and “right faith.” Georgian, Greek, Russian, Serbian, Romanian, Antiochian Orthodox are all the same faith. The only substantial difference is the language. The Orthodox Church is actually a ‘family’ of churches, consisting of many jurisdictions. At the same time, the Orthodox Church is not a ‘country club’. You are welcome regardless of where your parents, grandparents or ancestors came from. Just keep the Gospel of Jesus Christ first and foremost.
Do you have to confess your sins to a priest?
No. You confess your sins to God in the presence of a priest who will help you overcome them and proclaim God’s forgiveness, as promised in Holy Scripture.
Jesus tells His disciples to hear the sins of the people and impart His forgiveness, just like at the Last Supper He tells them to perform what we know as the Eucharist and Holy Communion. Confession was a public part of Christian life in the early Church. In his epistle, James teaches his readers to “confess to one another” (James 5:16). In fact, in the early Christian Church, confession was public. Secret and private confession (at home by oneself) is a modern idea completely unknown in the Bible and throughout Christian history. A Confession which is not made before God, humanity and creation, is no confession at all. This is the Orthodox Faith.
In the early Church, confession was made to the whole congregation. Afterwards the priest read a prayer over the person which manifested God’s forgiveness. With time this practice became difficult to keep up because of growth in Church membership. Confession to the whole congregation ceased by the fourth century and the priest came to represent the whole congregation in Confession.
The priest would hear the person’s sins, offer guidance and encouragement and then pray over the person. This is how confession is still practised today. Confession is totally based on the Bible and Holy Tradition.
All right, now on to your worship. Why are your churches and services so elaborate?
The first thing you notice when you visit us is that Orthodox worship engages the five senses. The burning candles and oil lamps, colour, form, symmetry, the touch of icons, the smell of incense, the sounds of the chanting, the taste of Christ’s Body & Blood in Holy Communion- all serve to focus our entire being on the worship of the living God. Corporate worship does not simply mean we worship with our ears and minds (by simply listening to the ‘preacher’). This is how worship has been since Apostolic times – worshipping with the WHOLE being. In terms of aesthetic beauty, we feel it necessary to adorn the house of God more so than our own place of dwelling for the simple fact that we love Him.
Why are there so many ‘pictures’ around The Church?
We read in the Epistle to the Hebrews (12:1-4) that we are surrounded by a great cloud of witnesses (literally, the martyrs) who watch after us and urge us on in our race towards Christ. We believe that the saints who have already run their race on earth indeed surround us – as in a stadium where the crowd urges the athlete on. In our homes as well as our churches, Orthodox Christians image this reality through the placement of icons.
I was told that the Orthodox worship pictures. Isn’t that against the Commandments?
Sorry, you were told incorrectly! The Holy Icons (“pictures”) are honoured as reminders of the Glory and Presence of God, and venerated as such. ONLY God, the Father, His Son Jesus Christ, and the Holy Spirit are due worship. (How can the Church practice that is so contrary to God’s Law?) That is one reason you will find no statues in Orthodox temples – their inclusion in our tradition never developed as that too closely resembled the pagan piety of the early days of our Church, during the time of the Apostles. But icons, rather than attempting to depict reality, point to the Kingdom of God. They are often referred to as “picture windows to Heaven”. In other words, you will not only hear the Gospel in an Orthodox Church, you will see it! The icons act as “tools” in our spiritual worship and witness to the sanctification of all creation and matter that occurred when Christ Jesus, the Son of God, took on human flesh. The Divine/Human Person of Jesus became the living icon of God (John 10:30; 14:6-11) in the flesh. With regard to the use of icons transgressing the second commandment of the decalogue, it must be remembered that Christ has already fulfilled the law under the Old Covenant and therefore the Commandments of old need to been seen now in the light of the New Covenant. The Church has already dealt with those who disagreed with or could not understand the place of icons (ie: the ‘iconoclasts’) in the 8th Century through the decisions of the 7th Ecumenical Council.
You keep mentioning “The Church” over and over again. Why?
Basically, Jesus Christ did not come to establish such a thing as “Christianity”. Even the word is not in the Holy Scriptures. What Christ Jesus did do was to establish the Church, which Scripture calls both His Body and His Bride. The communion which man seeks with God is found by being part of the Church, something which St. Paul calls a “great mystery”, whereby we become members of Christ: “of His flesh, and of His bones.” (Ephesians 5:30) The Bible also tells us that such as were being saved were added to the Church (Acts 2:47). They were not merely making “decisions for Christ” — again, not a Scriptural term — but they were repenting, being baptised for the remission of their sins, and being added to the Church. (Acts 2:38 ff.) There, they were continuing steadfastly in the Apostle’s doctrine and fellowship, the Breaking of Bread (what is commonly called Holy Communion today), and prayer. Finally, from the day of Pentecost, the “birthday” of the Church, the Bible never speaks of Christians who were not a part of it. This sort of sums up why we speak so much of “The Church”.
Why haven’t I heard of the Orthodox Church before?
A good question! It’s been around since the day of Pentecost (circa 33AD). You probably haven’t heard about it because we are a conservative Church that sounds no trumpets in our social programs but rather attempts to lead individuals, each in his or her own circumstances, into communion with God, the very purpose for which the Church exists. Believe it or not, there are at least 250 million Orthodox Christians throughout the world.
We often hear that Jesus died on the cross to save us. From what do we need to be saved, and whom did Jesus come to save?
John the Baptist said, “Look, the Lamb of God, who takes away the sin of the world.” (John 1:29). In reality, what Jesus takes upon his shoulders is very complex: a multi-faceted burden, which in a word may be termed “misery.”
“Surely He took up our infirmities and carried our sorrows, …. But He was pierced for our transgressions, … He bore the sins of many.” (Isaiah 53:4-6). The Bible presents sin as a global state of disorder, as being removed from God, as inner derangement. Sooner or later sin leads to numberless misfortunes and grief. Soon after their fall Adam and Eve learn that sorrows and pains would be their lot, death would be their end, the punishment of sin.
The Apostle Paul said, “For sin… deceived me, and through the commandment put me to death…. We know that the law is spiritual; but I am unspiritual, sold as a slave to sin…. For what I want to do I do not do, but what I hate I do…. For in my inner being I delight in God”s law; but I see another law at work in the members of my body, waging war against the law of my mind and making me a prisoner of the law of sin at work within my members. What a wretched man I am! Who will rescue me from this body of death? Thanks be to God—through Jesus Christ our Lord!” (Romans 7:11-25).
Jesus died and suffered on the cross to save us from this horrible misery. Scripture declares, “Can a mother forget the baby at her breast and have no compassion on the child she has borne? Though she may forget, I will not forget you!” (Isaiah 49:15).
In terms of who He came to save, the Bible makes it very clear that God “desires all men to be saved and to come to the knowledge of the truth.” (1 Timothy 2:4). It needs to be emphasized also that Scripture tells us that Jesus came into the world to save sinners. Many of us think that it is our righteousness that introduces us to God, and that our virtue, piety, learning, service, and zeal qualify us for communion with the heavenly. We do not realise that “all things are naked and open to the eyes of Him to whom we must give account.” (Hebrews 4:13). The truth is that we have nothing good to approach God with, “There is none righteous, no, not one,” (Romans 3:10), and that “all our righteousnesses are like filthy rags.” (Isaiah 64:6).
Jesus came to save sinners, particularly the sinner who feels within himself a total deprivation of all that is holy, pure, and solemn because of sin, the sinner who in his own eyes is in utter darkness, severed from the light of life, and from the communion of saints.
What did Jesus mean when He said that a person who blasphemes against the Holy Spirit will not be forgiven?
Jesus is not referring to a specific act, he is rather referring to a state: a hardness of heart. No matter what we have done, if we truly repent, genuinely feel sorry, make a firm decision to change, and confess our sins before a priest, then Jesus will forgive us.
To understand what Jesus meant it is best to study what happened just before Jesus said these firm words. Jesus had a performed a great miracle, (Matthew 12:22-23), it was obvious to everyone that this miracle was from God – the Bible tells us that it was so obvious that “all the multitudes were amazed.” The Pharisees however, even though they had first hand experience of a holy miracle, were so hardened in their heart that they said and believed that – “This fellow does not cast out demons except by Beelzebub, the ruler of the demons.” It was here were Jesus said:
“Therefore I say to you, every sin and blasphemy will be forgiven men, but the blasphemy against the Spirit will not be forgiven men. Anyone who speaks a word against the Son of Man, it will be forgiven him; but whoever speaks against the Holy Spirit, it will not be forgiven him, either in this age or in the age to come.” (Matthew 12:31-32)
In other words, if one has had first hand experience of an obvious miracle, if one has had direct experience of the Holy Spirit, and still rejects God and even blasphemes, then such hardness of heart cannot be forgiven. The issue concerns a heart that has hardened so much that it will not accept the Holy Spirit. Professor Trembelas said that blasphemy against the Holy Spirit consists of stubbornly and willfully rejecting a truth even where the evidence is obvious and where there can be no doubt. Such blasphemy has to do with insensibility in evil and a burnt-out conscience. The matter has to do with enmity against the very source of spiritual life and the provider of repentance and faith. Where there is such enmity, there can be no repentance, and therefore this sin, this state, cannot be forgiven.
It may seem amazing to us that someone could experience a very obvious miracle; they could experience for themselves the Grace of the Holy Spirit, and still reject Christ. It is amazing, but it can happen. This should be seen as a warning to us to not allow our hearts to harden.