More wise words from the pen of Fr David:
Acts 20:16-18; 28-36
The Holy Apostle Paul went throughout the world preaching the Gospel. He was the instrument by which the Holy Spirit brought the gentile believers into the Church. Like most of the other Apostles, he never stayed in one place permanently, rather he proclaimed the Gospel in one place, established there a congregation of believers, passed on to them the teaching given to him by Christ, and established local elders (bishops and priests) to whom he then passed on the care of the local Church. Then he would move on, repeating the process in every place that he stayed. In this way, many local Churches were established throughout the known world, united to one another in the life of Christ by baptism and their common faith. In the reading from the Acts of the Apostles today we see the Apostle returning to Jerusalem, there to celebrate the feast of Pentecost. Not being able to take the time to stop at all the local Churches on the way, he called the elders who had been left as the shepherds of those flocks to meet with him as he passed by. Today we heard part of his words to the elders of the Church in Ephesus as he gave them what would be his final instructions for the care of the flock entrusted to them.
The Apostle first warns them to beware the attacks of the evil one who would seek to destroy the Church by causing discord and confusion with false teachings rising both from without and within. This danger is just as real today as it was then. We are surrounded by all kinds of ideas and spiritual philosophies that seem to be filled with wisdom. Not only that we encounter these ideas in a culture which values diversity and encourages us to be accepting of everyone and not to criticize others for their beliefs. It is considered rude and uncivilized to maintain that we “have found the true faith” and others have not. We must not claim that this is indeed “the One Holy Catholic and Apostolic Church” to the exclusion of others – after all, everyone has the right to their own private belief – every opinion is valid, no one is wrong and everyone has a little bit of the truth (or perhaps there is not a single truth, but a truth customized to every person so that your truth is just as true as my truth despite the apparent disagreements). But this is not the teaching of the Church. There is one Truth and that Truth has been given to us in the person of the God/man Jesus Christ. He is (the one and only) Truth and only through Him is truth revealed to us. That revelation is preserved and passed on to us through the witness and teaching of the Holy Apostles and their successors, the hierarchs of the Church. Any addition, subtraction or deviation from that revelation takes us away from the Truth. It is just this danger that the Apostle Paul warned the elders of the Church of Ephesus (and us) to beware of. He gave the responsibility for preserving the pure revelation of the Gospel of Jesus Christ into the hands of the elders of the Church, who, in their ordination were given the divine grace to fulfill that task. Today we continue to proclaim this when we pray for our hierarchs in the Divine Liturgy that they might “rightly divide the Word of Thy Truth.”
The One Holy Catholic Church, that is the Orthodox Church, is that repository of pure and unchanged Truth and her bishops are the ones charged by Christ and the Apostles to be the guardians and teachers of the truth. If our personal ideas, beliefs and opinions are at variance with the teaching of the Church, then we have begun to fall into the dangerous place of false teachings against which the Apostle warned us. Therefore it is absolutely essential to us that we hold on to that which we have been given to us by Christ and conform our lives, even our opinions and beliefs, to the life of Christ which is found only within the life of the Church. The Church is, therefore, our safe harbor in the tempest of temptations which assault us in this world. Here in the Church we find that Truth that leads us without error and without compromise to union with Christ. The Church is essential for our spiritual well being and for our salvation.
For this reason, the Apostle Paul gives the elders of the Ephesian Church (and us) his next instruction. He cites the example of his own life where he gave all that he had to establish and maintain the Church – asking nothing but instead giving everything that the Church and the people who were within her might be firm and strong in the faith. In this he cites the words of our Lord that “it is more blessed to give than to receive.” In saying this, he puts the support for the Church as our greatest priority. This support is not only in spiritual terms, but also in physical terms. It is up to us to support and maintain this local Church so that it will remain and stand firm as a beacon of Truth in a world of compromise and falsehood.
The Apostle brought the Gospel to world asking nothing in return. Even though the Gospel of Christ is more precious than anything in the world, he gave it freely to all who would come. He asked nothing for himself and expected no reward in exchange for this great treasure. Having proclaimed the Gospel, he then invested all of his worldly possessions in the continuation of the local Church. He calls the elders of the Church in Ephesus to continue as he had – giving freely of the Gospel which they had received and investing the worldly resources that God had given them into the building up of the Church.
Again, in today’s world we face a situation that is not at all unlike that of the early Church. The upkeep of the local Church was entirely in the hands of the people of the Church. If they wanted to keep this beacon of Truth alight in their community, they were the ones that needed to do it. There were no government supports, no charitable grants, no corporate benefactors to support the Church. The Church was supported by the people who were part of her. Today we are in the same situation: there is no external support, no government grants, no private benefactor, not even diocesan support (the diocese instead depends on the contributions of the local parishes, like us, to pay its own bills). We have to support our Church.
We, each of us, have received priceless treasures from the Church. We have received the grace of the sacraments, the very Body and Blood of Christ. We have been washed of our sins and healed of the wounds of sin which afflict us. We are comforted by the hand of God and encouraged by His words. When we stray, we repent and our sins are forgiven without hesitation and we are received back into the arms of our Lord. Our marriages are preserved, our children are protected, our families are strengthened. . We are greatly blessed; we have received countless treasures; but as the Apostle reminds us, it is even more blessed to give than to receive.
First and foremost we give of ourselves to the Church: Our love for her and for her Head, our Lord Jesus Christ. When we love someone, we try to spend as much time with that other person as possible. This is also true of our love for the Church. The psalmist expresses this well saying, “One thing have I desired of the Lord, and that will I seek after, that I may dwell in the house of the Lord and enquire in His temple.” To come to the Church, to pray there, to spend time in the presence of God – this is our first and most important offering. But it is not the only thing.
Every member of the parish has to contribute according to his own ability. We each give whatever we can, because if we don’t there will be no money to keep the doors open and the lights on. The beacon of Truth, our haven from the storms of life, the means by which the path of salvation is revealed to us will no longer be here. The Church is our responsibility – given to us by God – and it is up to us to come together to pay the bills (because no one else is going to do it for us.)
Every Orthodox Church you see in this country was built not by some outside power, but by the contributions and labor of the people who come there to pray. Our parish is no exception from this. In the very beginning, the founders of this parish put up their own houses as collateral for the mortgage. From the very first days, we have labored with our own hands and our own money to continually create this beautiful temple. The mortgage, the lights, the water, all these expenses were paid out of the contributions of the people. And our expenses have not ended even now for we still are faced with monthly expenses which are necessary to keep what we have and we have hopes for even more. Every one of you here today is being called by the words of the Apostle to continue the work begun by those who have gone before us so that we might keep this beacon of Truth alight, so that we might continue to have this safe haven from the tempests of this life, so that we might continue to have a place in which to work out our salvation. This parish is our Church, given to us by God. This is the “treasure” that He has entrusted to us so that by our labors it might grow and bear fruit. Let us then take care of what God has given to us.