Melkite Greek Catholic Church
WHAT HAPPENS WHEN IT'S TIME for a strong leader to step down and be replaced by another? Sometimes there is continuity: the successor has similar gifts and a similar vision to his predecessor. Too often the successor is not up to the task: a poor choice to follow the predecessor’s lead. The Apostle Paul was a driving force in setting the Church at Ephesus firmly on the Rock of Christ. From AD 52 to 54 he lived in the city which became the base for his missionary travels as well during those years. St Paul, however, was not a local pastor but an apostle who traveled the Middle East and Europe preaching the Gospel, establishing or reinforcing local communities, then moving on. Sometimes St Paul would leave his closest associates to oversee the development of the local Church. It seems that in Ephesus, however, Paul at first formed local leaders – bishops, presbyters (elders) – to be responsible for the local community, aided in their ministry by periodic visits and/or letters (the Epistles) from Paul himself. Only later did he send St Timothy to oversee the Church in this important city. Chapter 20 of the Acts of the Apostles records how St Paul expressed his concern for the Church at Ephesus even when he could not pay them a personal visit. He called for the presbyters to meet him at the nearby port of Miletus for what we might call a pep talk, particularly as he feared they might not meet again in this life.

The Problem at Ephesus

St Paul warns the Ephesian elders, “Therefore take heed to yourselves and to all the flock, among which the Holy Spirit has made you overseers, to shepherd the church of God which He purchased with His own blood. For I know this, that after my departure savage wolves will come in among you, not sparing the flock. Also from among you men will rise up, speaking perverse things, to draw away the disciples after themselves” (Acts 20:28-30). The apostles were not the only preachers exercising an itinerant ministry at the time. Pagan philosophers and religious teachers of all kinds brought their message to the chief cities of the Roman Empire. The new churches set up in the Roman world provided fertile ground for some of these teachers claiming to be bringing the fullness of the Gospel to young believers. St Paul had done exactly that on his own first visit to Ephesus. “Finding some disciples he said to them ‘Did you receive the Holy Spirit when you believed?’ So they said to him, ‘We have not so much as heard whether there is a Holy Spirit’” (Acts 19:1-2). Learning that these men had been baptized by followers of St John the Baptist, Paul preached Christ to them and baptized them in Jesus’ name. Paul then spent two years with the Ephesians grounding them in the Gospel. St Paul feared his work would be undone by other itinerant preachers whom he called “savage wolves” and “false apostles” (2 Corinthians 11:13), worried that people would not be able to discern their teaching from the true Gospel of Christ: “…if he who comes preached another Jesus whom we have not preached, or if you receive a different spirit which you have not received or a different gospel which you have not accepted – you may well put up with it!” (2 Corinthians 11:4).

Christ vs. the Law

One of the “different gospels’ circulating in the first-century Church taught that pagans who became Christians also needed to be circumcised and to observe other laws in the Torah such as its dietary practices. Its proponents claimed that following the Law was required to insure that the believer remained pure and thus be assured a place in the kingdom of heaven. St Paul’s epistles frequently address this challenge, insisting that what saves us is belief in Christ rather than observance of the Law. “We have been delivered from the Law,” he would write to the Romans, “having died to what we were held by so that we should serve in the newness of the Spirit and not in the oldness of the letter” (Romans 7:6). A Christian who continued to observe the Law, he came to believe, was actually denying Christ. “You have become estranged from Christ – you who attempt to be justified by the Law. You have fallen from grace” (Galatians 5:4). Proponents of Old Testament practices in the Church came to be known as Judaizers, and groups of them continued for many years. Some continued to observe the Sabbath, Passover and Yom Kippur and to observe the Jewish dietary rules. By the fourth century such groups had distanced themselves from the Christian mainstream.

Faith in Christ vs. Secret Knowledge

A second brand of unorthodox teachers incorporated Gnostic philosophical ideas into their understanding of the Gospel. Some denied that God was the creator of the material world and taught that matter was evil, rejecting marriage and anything they perceived as unspiritual. Many they taught that Jesus was a mere human who attained divinity through the secret lore (gnosis) which he knew and practiced. Acquiring such spiritual knowledge, reciting of mantras and the like, they taught, brings about the transformation of the human spirit and frees it from the body. Several of the early strains of Gnosticism were described by St Irenaeus of Lyons in his second century work, Against Heresies. He quotes from their writings and refutes them from the authentic Scriptures. He notes their widely divergent and inconsistent doctrines in contrast to the unity of faith in the Church. He credits this unity to the Holy Tradition preserved in the Apostolic Churches. The common faith of these Churches puts “… within the power of all in every church who may wish to see the truth to contemplate clearly the tradition of the apostles manifested throughout the whole world” (Against Heresies 3.3.1).

Tradition: the Voice of the Spirit

Today the historic Churches – Catholic and Orthodox – look to a number of aspects of their life as manifesting the Apostolic Tradition. First among them are the Holy Scriptures (the Bible), the liturgy (the Church’s worship), the teachings of the ecumenical councils and other authoritative teachings of the Church. In the writings of the Church Fathers, the holy icons and the lives of the saints we also find authentic expressions of the Apostolic Tradition. The fundamental expression of Tradition, however, is the Church itself which St Paul calls “the pillar and ground of truth” (1 Timothy 3:16). The Church is the context within which all the expressions of Tradition find their true meaning. It is impossible to fully experience any element of the Tradition outside of the content of the Church. Like St Paul, the Church today counsels us to hold fast to what we have received and to test every novel teaching or practice against the common tradition of the Apostolic Churches. Although there is a diversity in these expressions of Tradition from time to time and place to place (there are, after all, four Gospels and a number of liturgical traditions), there is still a fundamental unity coming from their common source, the Holy Spirit dwelling in the Church.
IN MONASTIC OR RELIGIOUS CIRCLES it is common for spiritual leaders to leave their followers a “spiritual testament,” an outline of the teachings and instructions which they want uppermost in their disciples’ minds. Christ’s prayer in John 17 is a kind of spiritual testament. In it the Lord expresses His holy will for Himself, for His apostles, for the Church and for all mankind on the eve of His crucifixion. The Time of His Glorification– The prayer begins with Christ praying for Himself: “Father, the hour has come. Glorify your Son, that your Son may glorify You” (verse 1). What the Scripture calls Christ’s “hour” refers to the time of His redeeming sacrifice. Christ prays that He would be glorified by the completeness of this self-emptying. He totally enters into our experience of suffering and death in order to be one with us in all things except sin. His glory would not be the earthly idea of glory – power and might – but the glory of absolute and unconditional love. Jesus as the Eternal Word Made Flesh – The prayer continues: “glorify me in your presence with the glory I had with You before the world began” (verse 5). The heavenly glory, known to the angels, was to be manifested to us on earth through the cross. This reference brings us back to the proclamation of who Jesus is, which is found in the very first verse of John’s Gospel: “In the beginning was the Word…” The Gospel proclaims Jesus as the pre-eternal Word of God who is glorified with the Father before all ages. Jesus is not simply a prophet or inspired teacher – He is the One whom the Gospel says “…was in the beginning with God. All things were made through Him and without Him nothing was made that was made” (John 1:2, 3). This portrait of the eternal Word as one with the Father shows us a God who is in an eternal relationship and who is, therefore, love by His very nature (cf., 1 John 4:8). God’s relationship is, first of all, with the true and entirely appropriate object of His love: His divine Word who is glorified with Him from all eternity. Based on the words of this prayer the Church would go on to speak of Christ as “equal in glory with the Father.” Combining this with Christ’s teaching on the Holy Spirit, later believers would express this relationship as the doctrine of the Holy Trinity. Our Re-creation is in Christ – Between verses 1 and 5 we find a third concept recorded in the Gospel: “…You have given Him authority over all flesh that He should give eternal life to as many as You have given Him” (verse 2). The Word of God, through whom all things were made, is now incarnate in Jesus of Nazareth as the agent of a new creation. Mankind is given a new life which is, in fact, a second chance at the life intended for him from the beginning as described in the book of Genesis. This life is then described: “And this is eternal life: that they may know You, the only true God, and Jesus Christ whom You have sent” (verse 3). Eternal life, authentic life is communion: that knowledge which flows from a relationship with God. It was a relationship of communion which Genesis describes as God “walking with Adam” in the Garden. That fellowship, once lost, is restored through Christ. Some scholars believe that this verse is the Evangelist’s commentary on Christ’s prayer, an aside in the text, since it refers to the Lord in the third person. There were no quotation marks, punctuation or even paragraphs in first-century Greek manuscripts so it is possible that this is so. This verse does make an excellent commentary, a kind of liturgical refrain not only to this prayer but to our entire life in Christ. All of the Church’s life – our liturgies, icons, practices – draws its power from the relationship which we have with God. When we are in a living communion with Him, everything that we do as Christians shows forth that life. Our interior eyes gain the power to see what is present in the Scriptures, the Eucharist or the saints. They become means for us to deepen the life which comes from our relationship with God in Christ. If we are not living in that relationship then these practices are simply outward forms which will increasingly bore us. Prayer That His Disciples Be One – The prayer continues: “I have manifested Your name to the men whom You have given me out of the world…. and they have believed that you sent me” (verses 6, 8). The apostles had been called forth by Christ to leave their families and their livelihoods to follow Him. They were about to see Him arrested, humiliated and killed. They in their turn would face similar ends. Yet He prays, not that they remain steadfast, but that they remain one. “Holy Father, keep through Your name those whom You have given me, that they may be one as we are” (verse 11). The unity of the apostles in Christ would be more significant that the physical lives of any one of them, because from that communion would come the ongoing life of the entire Church. Prayer for the Church and the World – A few verses later we find a similar prayer for the whole Church and the world as well: “I do not pray for those alone, but also for those who will believe through their word that they all may be one, as You, Father, are in Me and I in You that they also may be one in Us, that the world may believe that You sent Me” (verses 20-21). This mutual interaction of Father, Son and Holy Spirit in the Trinity is extended to humanity in the Church. The bond we have with God is no longer simply that of creature to Creator; it is the filial relationship of the Son to the Father. “as You, Father, are in Me and I in You.” The Church, then, is not simply a human association of Jesus’ followers but an organic union of those who are “one in Us.” Finally, the world’s conversion to Christ is tied to the communion of the Church with God. This passage is often explained to mean that when Christians are united to one another the rest of the world will believe. It is perhaps more accurate to say that when the Church in “one in Us” – finding the source of its unity in the life of the Trinity rather than in authority, political power or other external factors – people will be drawn to it.

The Icon of Our Communion with God

The icon which most perfectly expresses this vision for the communion of the Church as being “one in Us” is the adaptation by St Andrei Rublev of the traditional image, “The Hospitality of Abraham.” The patriarch himself and other details from the Genesis story are deleted and all we see are the three guests whom he entertained, seated around a table. In Genesis 18:2 these visitors are described as “three men” but Rublev depicts them as angels. In fact Genesis 18:13 and verses following refer to Abraham’s company as “the LORD,” causing the Fathers to see this visitation as an early indication of the Trinity. Their eternal relationship is expressed by the fluid motion of their gestures. The fourth place at the table, included in these gestures, is set for us. Through baptism we have been brought into the eternal relationship of the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit. The single vessel on the table suggests the means of our ongoing communion with God, the Eucharist.

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