Community and Friendship in an Orthodox Sense

A Hymn to the Theotokos

The following is the Theotokion of the Aposticha at Small Vespers of the Resurrection in the 1st Tone:

The prophet called thee the Cloud of the ever-existing Light; for the Word of the Father descended upon thee as rain upon the fleece [cf. Ps. 71:6].  And dawning from thee, Christ our God, enlightened the world and abolished delusion.  We pray thee, fervently pray to Him unceasingly for us who proclaim thee to be truly the Birth-giver of God.

Community and Friendship in an Orthodox Sense

This again is something of a follow up of the first two posts in which there were articles on “Concerning converts entering the Church” and “Integrating Converts into the Church”.  Today is Lazarus Saturday and since it is at this time or Holy Saturday that we often see many receptions into the Church it seems to be a good time to continue to reflect on this issue.  So then, we are going to first speak about the Church as a community and then about true friendship in Christ.  These topics will inevitably arise in the consideration of the subject heading of converts.  The reason being is that we do happen see those who come to the Church looking for a community, or looking for a social life and friendships or looking for some type of humanitarian social activity in which they can offer of themselves.  Although these things are good in themselves yet they are not the right reason for coming to Orthodoxy and they will not bind one to the Church.  We come to the Orthodox Church for the healing and salvation of our soul, and because it embodies the fullness of truth.

Part I: The Church as Community

It is a very natural thing for man to desire to be a part of a family or community. As a result of his knowledge of the love of God which was taught directly by the Holy Spirit St. Silouan the Athonite understood man to be a community of being.  And St. Basil the Great says that man by nature is a creature meant to live in community and not alone.  For an Orthodox Christian the family or community to which we belong to is the Church, which is the body of Christ. which is made up of the faithful who are alive and struggling in this world and also the saints who have triumphed in this world and have become our intercessors in the heavenly kingdom. But what is meant by the Church being a community and the body of Christ, and that we are members of one another? And how in a living way can we integrate ourselves into God’s family, His community?

Once Bishop Basil Rozdianko was asked to speak at St. Tikhon’s Seminary on the subject of Russian spirituality. In expounding the Orthodox response to the concept of spirituality he also explained how the Church functions as a community as follows:

What is the Orthodox tradition on the subject of “spirituality?” In order to find the answer we should go to the saints. To do this I have chosen one of the very first saints and one of the very last ones: St. Clement of Rome of the second century and what he writes in his famous epistle to the Corinthians and St. Theophan the Recluse. There is a term which was used by St. Clement and which probably will be the real term for us, the Orthodox today, as it was at that time in the beginning. It is in Greek sumponia which is a combination of two words: sum, which means together, like we say co, coexistent and the other comes from the word pneuma which means spirit. It. is interesting that that term was used in the ancient Greek world by the medical profession in speaking about the breathing together of the body which gives life and is the source of life for an organism, because the word pneuma means not only spirit but also air and breathing. And St. Clement took that medical word and said for us Christians this is precisely what we are and should be, that is, we have to breath the same Spirit together and this actually brings us into complete unity and the way to salvation, But this means that this is always together, in togetherness; not everyone individually, not everyone in his own way only, not according to his own understanding or teaching or interpretation of the scriptures, No! In togetherness!

Now St. Theophan explains it and speaks about it in a very profound way which is very easily understandable today and that is he says when you want to achieve salvation and when you go on your way to salvation do not try to have something in separation from the others or in separation from other methods, Do not think that you can be saved only by good deeds or only by faith or only by this or that way of life, No! take everything together and everyone together so that you are really a part of the Church—the Church’s teaching.  This means not only what you read in the Scriptures or what you hear from sermons or some catechism or anything like that but the whole life of the Church must be taken together so that you are not only learning and studying but also living, experiencing, going to services and doing everything that the Church does. Try not to be outside of the Church at all and then you will attain salvation. In the Church and through the Church and through that unity, through that common breathing of the one Spirit of God.

And here comes another Greek term which, of course is well known and that goes together very well with this one and that is catholiki, The Catholic Church, Catholos comes from a Platonic term used in his philosophy and the idea of it is that everything is in accordance with the whole. Holos is the same root as whole, cata is according, in other words everyone is not on his own or her own, not in separation from the whole but according to the whole. And this was used for the first time also by a very early saint, that was St. Ignatius of Antioch who for the first, time applied that to the Church: Catholiki Ekklesia. So if we put together these two saints and these two terms we will see the idea: Together breathing the same Spirit of God according to the whole body of Christ.  And that is the way to salvation and that is the true and genuine spirituality in a real and proper sense. This is the Orthodox tradition on how to live in the spirit of God.

So then, as members of the Church our calling is to “breath the same Spirit of God together according to the whole body of Christ”.  The Holy Apostle Paul writes of this, for instance, he says, “For as we have many members in one body, and all members have not the same office:  So we, being many, are one body in Christ, and every one members one of another” (Rom.12:4-5).  And again: “For as the body is one, and hath many members, and all the members of that one body, being many, are one body: so also is Christ.  For by one Spirit are we all baptized into one body, whether we be Jews or Gentiles, whether we be bond or free; and have been all made to drink into one Spirit.

For the body is not one member, but many.  But now are they many members, yet but one body” (ICor. 12: 12-4,20).

Therefore we must, with one accord, breathe the one Spirit of God into Whom we were baptized.  We must keep before our minds the concept that we are one body in Christ and so realize the ascetic precept and cliché: our brother is our life.  And we must “earnestly contend for the faith which was once delivered unto the saints” (Jude 1:3)—for this is to be in accordance with the whole body of Christ—the Church.  May our Lord Jesus Christ,  grant us this, that we may thus have “our hearts knit together in love” (Col. 2:2).  And so, in this way, His prayer to the Father at the Mystical Supper for us all to be one, shall find its fulfillment in us.  Amen.

Part II: True Friendship in Christ

In writing on this subject I believe it is best to turn to a sermon on friendship which is based on the Conferences of St. John Cassian.  It is Conference XVI, The first conference with Abba Joseph, that is being referenced.  His writings are found in the Nicene and Post Nicene Fathers Series II Volume XI, published by Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, Grand Rapids, Michigan.  This sermon is on the Gospel and Epistle readings of the 8th Sunday after Pentecost—Matthew 14:14-22 and I Corinthians 1:10-17.

Beloved of God, with the epistle reading of today in mind, I would like to speak a little about the topic of friendship or maybe I should say the various ways in which people can be united to one another.  And to do this I would like to refer to the writings of one of our early fathers, St. John Cassian, and his conferences with the early Egyptian desert fathers.  So one of the fathers he visited spoke of friendship in the following manner:

There are many kinds of friendship and companionship which unite men in very different ways in the bonds of love.  First there is one kind of love, where the union is from the instincts and laws of nature, by which those of the same ethnic background, or blood relations are naturally preferred to others, a thing which we find is the case not only with mankind but also with animals.  Sometimes some bargain or an agreement to give and take something has joined men in the bonds of love. With others a similarity and union of business or science or art or study has united them in friendship.  These are some of the positive causes by which men enter into bonds of friendship.  However, it is sad to say that there are even negative and sinful causes which unite men in friendship by which even fierce souls become kindly disposed towards one another, so that thieves or murders or drunkards embrace and cherish the partners of their crimes or sin.—freely quoted

There are a few other things along these lines that we often see in the Church which ruins many souls and is hard to detect, first is a common dislike for a third party and secondly sectarianism.  For we sometimes see clans develop who either group themselves under a spiritual figure, or are zealous for a particular cause, and are at variance with others in the Church. We usually find that such are highly critical of those who are outside their group.  So these are errors we especially need to watch out for and this leads us to the scripture readings of the day

In the epistle we heard the Apostle Paul express a desire for the unity of the Christians in Corinth by saying, “ Now I beseech you brethren, by the name of our Lord Jesus Christ, that ye all speak the same thing and that there be no divisions among you, but that ye be perfectly joined together in the same mind and in the same judgment.”  So the Apostle wants them to be united according to Christ, to be untied by being of one mind in Christ.  And in the gospel we see that there were crowds who in their zeal for God were following our Lord Jesus Christ in order to learn from Him about thekingdomofGodand how to live a righteous life.  This united then in the bonds of friendship. They were so drawn to Christ that they did not care about their need for food.

But on the other hand, in many places in the gospel, we see something quite contrary, we see the Jewish leaders united in another way—they were united in friendship by a common rejection of our Lord and hatred for Him.  So again this is the type of friendship we must avoid and rather seek to live in Christ and we shall be united in Him and we will then naturally join ourselves in companionship with those who are doing likewise.  So let us again turn to this father quoted earlier, St. John Cassian, and see what he says about true friendship in Christ.  So he writes:

Among all the kinds of love which unite men there is one that is indissoluble, where the union is owing not to the some favor, or some great kindness or gifts, or the reason of some bargain, or the necessities of nature by being of the same race or family, but simply by the similarity of virtue. This, I say, is what is broken by no chances, what no interval of time or space can sever or destroy, and what even death itself cannot part. This true and unbroken love which grows by means of the common seeking of perfection in Christ cannot be broken by any difference of liking or which no opposition of wishes can sever.  For such are joined together in companionship out of their love for Christ and zeal for keeping His commandments. 

However,St. Johngoes on to mention that among them who have had such a friendship in Christ there are those who could not maintain it continually and unbroken.  So he continues to instruct us how to keep friendship in Christ unbroken by saying: “If you also wish to keep this unbroken, you must be careful to first get rid of your faults, and you must mortify your own will and desires; for it is such things that will cause disturbance within us and then in our relationships with others”.   Then he concludes by insisting that love can only continue undisturbed in those in whom there is but one purpose of overcoming one’s faults through keeping the Gospel commandments and who have one mind in following our Lord Jesus Christ.

So let us follow our Lord Jesus Christ by keeping His life-giving commandments which will heal our souls of sin.  This is a great miracle: for our souls to be healed of the disease of sin.  Let us strive for this together, as the crowds who followed Christ, let us struggle against sin within us, let us support each other in what is good, let us be ready to empty ourselves for each other, let us avoid being a stumbling block to others, and so be united with one mind in Christ  And as the Apostle says let us be of one mind and so hope for the unity that we pray for in the Divine Liturgy:  Grant that with one mouth and one heart we may praise Thine all honorable and majestic Name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit, both now and ever and unto the ages of ages.  Amen.

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