“And they continued steadfastly in the apostles’ doctrine and fellowship, in the breaking of bread and in [the] prayers” (Acts 2:42).
Having to explain what the Fellowship of St. John the Divine (“the Fellowship”) is, what it does, and what is its target audience, is probably the most daunting task any Fellowship president has to do; and most often unsuccessfully. To help with this, a few years ago the Fellowship launched this series of Fellowship Footnotes to look each month at different aspects of the Fellowship.
Perhaps the main difficulty is that the Fellowship is not constrained to an artificial demographic category, be it age-group, sex, or social class. The answer may be more complicated, since “fellowship” implies a mystical relationship, as we shall see later on in the words of our patron saint, the Holy Evangelist John. This relationship is involved with other aspects of Christian living found in the early Church, aspects we tend to forget about amidst the many distractions in our lives. It might be helpful for us today to examine precisely this “fellowship” that the Apostle describes in the book of Acts.
Fellowship in the life of the Church
“And they continued steadfastly in the apostles’ doctrine” (ti didachi ton apostolon).
The Church has existed in its fullness since the day of Pentecost. While living in fellowship, the early Christians held on “steadfastly” to the apostolic teachings. To this day, the Church’s unwavering belief is that “Christ revealed, the Apostles preached, and the Fathers safeguarded.” This is why the apostolic succession of bishops, the dispensers of the apostolic teaching to the faithful, is very important in the Orthodox Church. Any deviation from apostolic teaching wounds the fellowship of the Church. As the Holy Apostle Paul explains, the Church, is one body – the body of Christ – so that when one member of this body suffers, the whole body suffers (cf. 1 Corinthians 12:26).
“… and fellowship” (kai ti koinonia)
In Greek, the word for fellowship also means communion, and refers to the intimacy felt by members of the Church through the Holy Spirit. For the Orthodox Christian, the ultimate example of koinonia is Holy Communion, which brings us in complete (and visible) union with Christ and with our brothers and sisters.
“… in the breaking of bread” (kai tou klasei tou artou)
In the Greek text, the words used here specifically refer to the Eucharistic celebration of the Divine Liturgy. (The same word is also used in Luke 24:35, Acts 2:46, Acts 20:7, and 1 Corinthians 10:16). Holy Communion has always been the central element from which stems the whole life of the Church. St. Paul warned the early Church about serving and partaking of Holy Communion without koinonia in the Church (cf. 1.Corinthians 11:17–22). So important is the Eucharist in the life of the Church, that St. Ignatius of Antioch calls it the “medicine of immortality” (pharmacon tis athanasias), since the communicant receives Christ’s resurrected body, which becomes the antidote to death (Ignatius to the Ephesians 20:2).
“… and in the prayers” (kai tais prosevchais)
The Greek text specifically says “the prayers,” a reference to liturgical or communal prayers used by the Church. No surprise there, of course, since the apostles, after all, came from a Judaic liturgical tradition lived in the temple.
Therefore, as it was in the early Church, it is true today that fellowship in the Orthodox Church cannot be separated from her doctrine or worship. At a time when all realities, even spiritual realities, seem to be compartmentalized, the Orthodox Church maintains today that a separation between fellowship, worship, and doctrine is foreign and artificial. Fellowship (whether inside the Church building, on campus, at work or at home, or even on the streets or in prisons) must start from and come back to the worship of the Church. At all times, the Orthodox Church affirms that she is primarily a worshiping Church, and that her worship is her theology. (The Latin expression Lex orandi, lex credendi, which can be loosely translated as “the law of prayer is the law of belief,” is often used to refer to this relationship between worship and belief.) Evagrius, a fourth-century monastic writer, said that “if you are a theologian you will truly pray, and if you truly pray you will be a theologian.” The view that theology is restricted to an elite few and does not concern the “regular church-goer” is foreign to the mind of the Church. Instead, she teaches that, by virtue of baptism, the faithful are ordained into the order of the Laos, a word which literally means “people,” and refers to an actual order of the Church. (There are four, not three, orders in the Orthodox Church: the episcopate, the priesthood, the diaconate, and the Laos, or λαός,.) With that ordination, the Church affirms that all who are baptized are called to pray: all are called to become theologians.
The Fellowship of St. John the Divine
We live in times in which we are conditioned to see the Church as part of the world we live in. However, to the Orthodox mind the Church is not in the world, but rather the world is in the Church. To put it another way, the Church is everything that the world is called to be. It follows then that the life of the Church we described is the life of the faithful, the members of the body of Christ.
By extension, this life is also the life of the Fellowship, an organization whose purpose is to cultivate a relationship among the faithful based on the life of the Church. To understand this relationship among the faithful, we must focus on what, or more precisely who, it is that binds them. St. John the Evangelist (also called “the Theologian” for the spiritual depth of his writings), starts his universal letter to the Church, with these words:
“That which was from the beginning, which we have heard, which we have seen with our eyes, which we have looked upon, and our hands have handled, concerning the Word of Life – the life was manifested and we have seen, and bear witness, and declare to you that eternal life which was with the father and was manifest to us – that which we have seen and heard we declare to you, that you also may have fellowship [koinonia] with us; and truly our fellowship is with the Father and with His Son Jesus Christ” (1 John 1:1-3).
St. John beautifully links the fellowship of the Church to the life of the Holy Trinity. Our participation in the life of the Holy Trinity, known as deification (theosis, or Θέωσις), is the central goal of the Christian life. It is also the central purpose to the Fellowship and everything that it does. The Fellowship exists to remind us constantly of this central focus in our lives. As the Evangelist notes, theosis is made possible through experience (even sensory experience) which we, too, can have with the Son of God, precisely because He “was with the Father and was manifest to us.” This experience is ever present in the Church and is accessible to us today in her sacramental life.
In his letter to the Galatians, St. Paul explains: “I have been crucified with Christ; it is no longer I who live, but Christ lives in me” (Galatians 2:20). This is how theosis is manifested in the life of the Christian, and which leads one to repeat the words of the Baptist “He must increase, but I must decrease.” (John 3:30). In my opinion, outside this understanding of theosis and fellowship in the life of the Church, the Fellowship is reduced to a nebulous organization, a void-filler, a collection of projects, or just an administrative body that coordinates different programs for the Archdiocese. I have heard all of these things said about it (and I’m sure you’ve heard more).
The words of St. Paul and St. John are a solid reminder for ministry in the Church: just like a priest does not perform his personal ministry but the ministry of Christ, the Great High Priest, likewise an organization, like the Fellowship, does not have its own ministry or agenda, but participates in the ministry of Christ, the only true minister.
The programs run by the Fellowship fall within a four-fold vision, focusing on worship, fellowship, witness and service. The ultimate goal is to provide a spiritual balance for the faithful to live a Christ-center life, protected by the time-tested witness of the Church, and the prayers of our patron and intercessor, St. John the Divine, the Evangelist, the Theologian, the Beloved.
Nicolas Ellaham is the president of the Fellowship of Saint John the Divine of the Diocese of Ottawa, Eastern Canada, and Upstate New York.