The True Church – In But Not Of the World

In a recent post, I spoke of, what I believe to be, an aspect of the “true Church,” namely, “Giving it your all with perseverance.” I want to add another aspect to the list, “life witness.” Now, when I use the word “witness,” I intend for you to understand that I bring to it the connotations of the Greek word, “martyr.” When you read the word “witness” in your New Testament, most likely the Greek word is martyr.

I do not want to take the space in this post to give a detailed exposition of the threads of meaning that this connection exposes. Suffice it to say, martyrdom in some form or another (as the Holy Spirit determines), is the inevitable shape that true discipleship in Christ takes when we are “giving it our all with perseverance.” In short, martyrdom is simply dying to all that is not of Christ in your life – interior and exterior – and living in more and more practical conformity with all that is of Christ – interiorly and exteriorly.

Several passages from the New Testament will take us deeper into the nature of the true Church, which is martyrdom.

“No one can serve two masters; for either he will hate the one and love the other, or he will be devoted to the one and despise the other. You cannot serve God and mammon. Matthew 6.24

“But take heed to yourselves; for they will deliver you up to councils; and you will be beaten in synagogues; and you will stand before governors and kings for my sake, to bear testimony before them.  And the gospel must first be preached to all nations. And when they bring you to trial and deliver you up, do not be anxious beforehand what you are to say; but say whatever is given you in that hour, for it is not you who speak, but the Holy Spirit. And brother will deliver up brother to death, and the father his child, and children will rise against parents and have them put to death; and you will be hated by all for my name’s sake. But he who endures to the end will be saved.” Mark 13.9-13

“But now I am coming to thee; and these things I speak in the world, that they may have my joy fulfilled in themselves. I have given them thy word; and the world has hated them because they are not of the world, even as I am not of the world. I do not pray that thou shouldst take them out of the world, but that thou shouldst keep them from the evil one. They are not of the world, even as I am not of the world. Sanctify them in the truth; thy word is truth. As thou didst send me into the world, so I have sent them into the world. And for their sake I consecrate myself, that they also may be consecrated in truth.” John 17.13-19

“Unfaithful creatures! Do you not know that friendship with the world is enmity with God? Therefore whoever wishes to be a friend of the world makes himself an enemy of God.” James 4.4

Our martyrdom, in essence, begins with the commitment to no longer live according to the standards and priorities of “this world.” We are citizens of “another world” – the Kingdom of God – which has been and is breaking in to the kingdom which is “this world,” and transforming it (according to ways that are appropriate to God’s economy of purpose) to the Kingdom of Heaven. The “flow” is toward the consummation of the Kingdom of Christ no matter what appearances may indicate. The gates of hell shall not (are not) prevailing against this progress no matter how hidden and subtle.

Our commitment, according to our Lord and Master, Christ Jesus and the “witness” of the Holy Spirit within us, is to decide at all times and in all places with all persons, to make our decisions and live in identifiable ways that are in agreement with the standards and priorities of the Kingdom of God.  It is coming to the point where, nothing less than this is acceptable to us in our own life before we even begin to say or do anything about our conviction of this in the lives of others (I must be actively addressing my own stuff before I presume to speak to others about taking care of what I believe to be their stuff! Don’t get me wrong. I am not advocating letting sin slide. Just the opposite. I am advocating NOT letting sin slide but taking care of it in our own life first.).

Such a commitment to not “give in” to the standards of this world is, of course, huge. But, I at least, cannot rationalize it away. I cannot pretend that it is anything less than the true baseline of, as Watchman Nee termed it, “the normal Christian life.” Dietrich Bonhoeffer, in his classic, The Cost of Discipleship, called anything less than such a commitment, “cheap grace.”

Will we fall back into the old ways, the ways of the world? Will it be painful and feel artificial and seem many times like no progress is being made? Yes. The Church Fathers make it abundantly clear that “walking in the light” – living the Kingdom life beginning here and now, in the midst of this world, is tantamount to warfare. Warfare of an invisible kind with the “passions of the flesh” that have reigned within us unchallenged.

The passions of pride, self-love, and vainglory desire to keep us enslaved, sowing in the soul confusion, delusion, and vain reasoning. When we realize this is the case and begin to oppose the “powers and principalities” that war against Christ within us, we must intentionally lay aside all our acquired learning, every opinion about God and ourselves. We must allow the Holy Spirit through use of the Holy Tradition, “which has great holy power and is filled with divine wisdom,” teach and conform us to the likeness of Christ Jesus.

Because the roots of the “ways of this world” have grown deep and strong into the depths of our souls, the journey of spiritual healing and maturing will be lifelong. Our Lord made it abundantly clear: “Enter by the narrow gate; for the gate is wide and the way is easy, that leads to destruction, and those who enter by it are many. For the gate is narrow and the way is hard, that leads to life, and those who find it are few.” (Matthew 7.13-14)

We need to become as children not just when we are new to the faith. No. We must remain teachable children and grow up into the kind of maturity that remains deeply teachable. The Holy Tradition calls this characteristic, humility. St. Paul is speaking of this character trait when he says, “If any man thinks that he knows anything, he knows nothing yet as he ought to know.” (1 Corinthians 8.2)

You and I will lapse into times of forgetfulness and revert to the ways of the world. Then, all of a sudden we will be awakened out of our stupor by the Holy Spirit. But we must, never give up. We must never let ourselves become despondent or give in to feelings or thoughts of resignation or self-condemnation. Breaking the power of the ways of the world in our life is hard work that takes time to accomplish. The healthiest thing to do at the moment we realize our lapse is to cry out to God in thanksgiving for the merciful “wake-up call,” agree with the truth God has shown us, re-turn to our right mind (truthful mind) regarding our life, and move forward from that point with great thanksgiving.

The old ways cannot be overcome by our own strength. We must be being continually strengthened and equipped by the Holy Spirit. But, it is also true that the old ways cannot be overcome without the exertion of our will with regularity and constancy. It is the union of our will with the strengthening and equipping will of the Holy Spirit that can successfully overcome the power of the spiritual inertia of the old “frame of reference” and our tendency to “fall back” into the way of life we have forsaken.

You and I will not “win friends and influence people” according to “this world.” But, we may be the leaven of salvation to many. St. Seraphim of Sarov, the 18th century Russian saint, greeted all with these words: “Acquire a peaceful spirit, and around you thousands will be saved.”

The most important questions that the true Church of Christ Jesus over the last two millennia asks us are: Do you know what the Lord desires for you to do? Are you doing it? If not, why not? When will you do it? What price are you paying for the delay? Are you, in short, setting your hand to the plow and looking back?

Be blessed by the “witness” of St. Mamas, who is commemorated today…

The Holy Martyr Mamas of Caesarea – September 2 — Mamas, was born in Paphlagonia of renowned Christian parents, Theodotus and Rufina. His parents were cast into prison for Christ’s name. His father died first in prison, and as soon as Rufina bore Mamas, she also died. Thus the newborn child was left alone between the dead bodies of his parents. However, God the Provider sent an angel to a noble widow, Ammia. Ammia saw the angel in a dream: he told her to go to the prison and take the child in. The local eparch granted Ammia permission to bury the dead and to take the child to her home. When Mamas reached his fifth year, he began to talk and his first word was “Mama!”-for which he received the name “Mamas.” In school, Mamas displayed unusual intelligence, and as he had been reared in a Christian spirit, he did not hide his faith, but confessed it to the other children and laughed at the idols. During the reign of Aurelian there was a bitter persecution of Christians. The pagans did not even spare the Christian children. Mamas was fifteen years old when he was brought before the emperor. The emperor told him that he needed only to deny Christ verbally. Mamas replied: “Neither in my heart nor with my lips will I renounce my God and King, Jesus Christ.” The emperor ordered him to be beaten, burned with torches, and finally thrown into the sea. But an angel of God saved him, and took him to a high mountain near Caesarea. There he lived in solitude and prayer. Even the wild beasts were tamed by his sanctity. He was finally discovered by his persecutors and subjected to torture again. When he had overcome torture both by fire and by wild beasts, St. Mamas was run through with a trident by a pagan priest. Thus, in A.D. 275, he gave his holy soul to God, to Whom he had been faithful during all of his tortures. From his relics many healings of the sick have taken place. (The Prologue from Ochrid, pg. 279)

I know, I haven’t given you or myself much “wiggle room.” But then, neither does Jesus. The character of our martyrdom is NOT determined by us. It is decided by God. Your decision and mine is whether or not to embrace it with gratitude, humility (a truly repentant attitude – “joyful sorrow”), and perseverance when it becomes known. This we do, it must be stated, in the context of the visible and invisible fellowship of the saints. To God be the glory…

Fr. Thomas