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Encountering God in the Church

By Bishop John Abdalah

From the November 2014 edition of The Word

What does it take to keep the Church doors open, or, probably more important, what does it take to fulfill our Christian responsibility? Keeping our doors open is not enough. We are to bring Christ to His world and offer this world back to God. Such a commission requires more than minimalist ways of thinking. It takes all of our hearts, all of our minds, and all of our souls. Rather than asking what is the least we can get away with, we need to dream together about serving God and serving His people. We need to develop a clear vision of what bringing the world to God is all about. We need to express God's saving action in real time and in tangible, understandable and relational ways. This is what it means to be in the Church, the Church which is apostolic and established by God for the life of the world.

Researchers have reported that for the first time in American history, there is no longer a correlation between church attendance and contributions to the church or support of it. Churches that are full sometimes have smaller receipts than those with few people in the pews. What is behind such a finding is a new understanding of membership. People who consider themselves members of a church may not translate their idea of church membership to church attendance, work in the church or support. While some members come to church but don't contribute or support the church, others contribute, but absent themselves from worship. Church life has changed dramatically in the last two decades. Understanding of the nature of the church has changed. This is true in the Orthodox Church as well. Church leadership would do well to understand what the members are thinking and how they behave as a result. An understanding of how our Orthodox Church members are thinking and how they are influenced by those around us will make us pastors better able to teach what is true and wholesome.

The Church provides us with opportunities to serve God and the world that He created and calls home. The Church is mystical, inasmuch as God Himself touches us and ministers to us through this body established by Him, a body that, like Christ, is both divine and human. Through human bishops, pastors, and faithful laity, God works, heals, witnesses and saves. Through real people gathered in His name and worshiping in correct (Orthodox) ways, God reveals Himself and sanctifies our space, our time, our selves. God is in His Church and His Church is in Him. God works through His Church.

We cannot be Christian without the Church that chrismates and Christianizes us. As Christians, we do not act in isolation or follow our own will. Christians from the time of the disciples submit themselves to God and to each other, and are sent by the Church. This being sent and being responsible to the Church protects us from self-delusion and egocentrism. We are all empowered and directed by Christ through His Church. Every generation from the time of Christ has witnessed continuously and consistently to the Word of God who took on flesh, taught us, suffered for us and died a horrible death for us. This He did, so that He could rise for us and open for us a way to live in Christ. 

The Church gives us opportunities to meet God through worship, study and prayerful support. We then share with the world on behalf of our Church our own witness to Christ, and then share God’s own compassion and mercy. God is discovered as He reveals Himself to us in the Church and then rediscovered as He reveals Himself to others through us. I am saying that we discover God again as He works through us. He works through us when we serve Him through the Church by caring and witnessing to others.

In a few weeks Patriarch John X will come to New York to install Metropolitan Joseph as Archbishop of New York and Metropolitan of All North America. Patriarch John X is the visible source of Christ’s Church as lived within the Patriarchate of Antioch from Ss. Peter and Paul until today. Likewise, Metropolitan Joseph serves as our source and connection to the Apostolic Church that we are today in North America. The Church is a Church that incarnates the Word of God. It is a Church that puts flesh on God's love and shows God's action in our lives. In submitting to God through our submission to each other, let us dedicate ourselves and each other to Christ. It is only in this submission that we can act in Christ both without egotism and in reality. It is only in being sent by God through the visible signs that are our Patriarch, Metropolitan, bishops and pastors that we can be the Church and claim our apostolic authority.

Together, let us commit ourselves to Christ through our Patriarch John X and our Metropolitan Joseph so that we can encounter God and do His will through His Church. Let us serve North America within Jesus Christ and with integrity and love. Let us share Christ with the countries of North America in which we live and that we love. Let us witness to each other, sowing and reaping generously, not minimally.