The Transfiguration of the World and the Life of the Church

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For many centuries, the life of the Church (I am not here speaking particularly of the Orthodox Church though it applies even there) has been relegated to itself as institution and dispenser of the sacraments.

Many of the the things we think of as intergral parts of the institution have only existed for a short while and do not constitute anything of eternal value to the Body of Christ.

Parish Councils, to use a simple example, are recent innovations (in Orthodox life). Though our way of handling Church monies in America can be well served buy such organs.

Much of what parishes think of as “program” is wholly foreign to the history of Christianity. The modern Church can become a dispenser of programs, the priest, a sort of “club director.” With this, of course, have come increasing demands on priests and their time and attention, often to the detriment of prayer and study of the Word.

Many of the things that occupy Church headquarters are also recent additions. In many denominations, including non-hierarchical, people find the “tail wagging the dog,” where national concerns are overriding local concerns and (especially through the enforcement of property law) are becoming requirements of the local congregation.

The transformation that begins to take place is not the transfiguration of the World in the Life of the Church, but the transformation of the Life of the Church into an obedient dispenser of religious product.

Years ago, as an Anglican, I received annual mailings from Dunn and Bradstreet, that asked me questions about the “business” I ran. It wanted to know about membership, money, etc. What I found most amusing was its reference to me, as the priest of the local congregation in a hierarchical situation, as the “branch manager.” Sometimes things can be all too true even when they are unintended.

The Church exists primarily to give thanks to God and to make intercession for the world. Part of that mission (giving thanks and interceding) occur when we remember the poor and give to them (not that we hope to change the world – I have posted this before -but Christians should never expect to change the world – it’s delusional). We give to the poor in love because Christ commanded it and because in giving to them we give to Him (Matthew 25:40). Those who will not remember the poor in the name of Christ will never know God (unless they are so poor they cannot give).

St. Augustine once observed that the definition of poor is “not having enough.” And that the definition of rich means having “more than enough.” Thus, he said, if you wish to be rich, then give some of your wealth away, and by definition you are rich. This is a transfiguration of the world (one man at a time).

If the Christian Church disappeared tomorrow, how many of its activities would be subsumed by some para-political entity? Certainly a large number of them.

But there are things that connot be replaced. The ministry – the true ministry of priest – cannot disappear. When a priest ceases to chiefly be the presider at worship and “Christ among us,” leading us by example in prayer and praise of God – then there is nothing that replaces him. A “worship leader” in many congregations (protestant) is not acting as priest.

My oldest daughter spent a year in Siberia. There she faithfully attended the Orthodox Church. She had a friend who was Orthodox who invited her to go to Church one Sunday. The Church, however, was not Orthodox, but a recent American plant, using the “mega church” model. Being in Russia, and being culturally sensitive, this new Church met in a movie theater, but had large icons around the room. Russians expect them.

My daughter said to her friend, “But you are Orthodox? Why do you want to go to a protestant Church?”

“What’s the difference,” her friend replied. They both have icons, only the American Church has rock and roll!” This, again, is not the transfiguration of the world, but the morphing of the Church into a rock concert.

Each member of the Church is bound to gather for Sunday liturgy (at least), and to allow themselves to gradually be transfigured as they worship, give alms, receive the sacraments and forgive all those around them.

Just how much Dunn and Bradstreet stuff do you need to do that? This question we must ask of ourselves if we are ever to live properly in the culture that surrounds us.

15 Responses to “The Transfiguration of the World and the Life of the Church”

  1. Jonathan Says:

    “…not that we hope to change the world – I post this another time but Christians should never expect to change the world – it’s delusional…”

    I’m both in agreement and am puzzled by this statement.

    Fair enough, we can’t change the world as a whole. But, as we go throughout each day, do we not have countles chances to affect the world (at least the one around us) for change? For instance, when you go home at the end of the day you can speak kindly or harshly to your wife. This affects not just her relationship with you, but possibly even her relationships with other people, depending on how your interaction affects her. Not to mention that it can either change an attitude that has been held throughout the day or encourage it to continue.

    Yet, methinks that this falls under being faithful and letting God work through our actions and words, allowing Him to change the world, bit by bit?

  2. Fatherstephen Says:

    Of course each action effects the world, but changing the whole world is mostly left-over political rhetoric. We change ourselves (by grace) and impact the world around us. But, short of Christ’s second coming, the world remains hostile to the gospel. This is not to say that we should not take on even large efforts in service of the gospel, but that’s not the same thing as taking on a large effort in order to change the world. God is in charge of the world – it is His to change. He alone can judge such as thing. These Utopian schemes that are the stock in trade of governments are not the language of the gospel.

  3. rdreusebios1 Says:

    Fr. Steven,
    Father Bless!
    Thank you for this timely reminder that we can scarcely afford to let the Church continue to morph into some kind of business. I’ve heard rumblings about the necessity of progressing along a business model, even from friends attending seminary, and it makes my blood boil. Also, the ridiculous demands that parish councils try to place on priests are, imho, a travesty, and a huge burden to place on the shoulders of someone who is alreaady responsible for so much.
    As to changing the world, I look forward to hearing more from you on this subject I believe I see where you are headed with this, and as a former “do-gooder” Protestant, I also believ that you are correct, though I didn’t undersdtand that then and am but beginning to come to grips with it now.

  4. rdreusebios1 Says:

    Fr. Stephen,
    Father Bless!
    Thank you for this timely reminder that we can scarcely afford to let the Church continue to morph into some kind of business. I’ve heard rumblings about the necessity of progressing along a business model, even from friends attending seminary, and it makes my blood boil. Also, the ridiculous demands that parish councils try to place on priests are, imho, a travesty, and a huge burden to place on the shoulders of someone who is alreaady responsible for so much.
    As to changing the world, I look forward to hearing more from you on this subject I believe I see where you are headed with this, and as a former “do-gooder” Protestant, I also believ that you are correct, though I didn’t undersdtand that then and am but beginning to come to grips with it now.

  5. November In My Soul Says:

    I was once president of a Lutheran Church council. I was there for the funeral of the congregation after it eventually became defunct when the ELCA (mercifully) pulled the proverbial plug. I am convinced that we became so consumed by our survival as a group that any attempt at perfecting ourselves went out the window. There were so many distractions there was no way the pastors (male and female) could pastor. The last pastor wanted to do away with the liturgy and become a praise and worship congregation. That sealed our fate. At one point the congregation was split asunder when the ELCA wanted to change the name from Lord of the Sea to Joy Lutheran. I guess they figured it would be non-specific enough not to offend anyone. The good news is that this was part of my family’s journey to Orthodoxy.

  6. Alan Says:

    Father Stephen,

    Excellent post.

    Changing the world. I see your point, but, at the same time I think without getting co-opted by current political agendas, the church can live authentically as a sign and agent of God’s Kingdom. Changing the world is, ultimately the result of the supernatural work of the powers of the age to come. But then, don’t we live in the “overlap” of ages? We are still in the present age, but, in Jesus, and through his Church, the age to come has, indeed, broken in on us. Where Jesus went he brought wholeness and healing (spiritual, relational, physical, etc.). Jesus told that that if he cast out demons by the finger of God, then the Kingdom was among us. Has he not bound the strong man (Satan) so that he may despoil his house? Are we not involved in that work as well? When people receive the Gospel sometimes wonderful things can happen: marriages get saved, parents begin to pay attention to their children, people become philanthropists, businesspeople become more honest, and in once famous case, the Clapham Sect in the early 19th century had a significant role in ending the slave trade in the British Empire.

    But then, the Kingdom is only partially present. It will come in fullness when Jesus returns. Sin remains in people, in families, in educational, social, economic and political systems. Creation still groans. Oftentimes life is a veil of tears: Christians get divorced, we remain selfish, we live to consume.

    Are we optimists or pessimists? Are we realists?

    Good questions you raised, FAther.

    Peace,

    Alan

  7. Ezekiel Says:

    Father, Bless!

    Perhaps you could straighten out the grammar in this paragraph:

    “Parish Councils, to use a simple example, are recently innovations (in Orthodox life). Though our way of handling the Church monies in America can be sell served but such organs.”

    I’m not sure if you are saying that Parish Councils may be the best way to manage financial affairs in this country, or if you are cautioning that the Parish Council may indeed become self serving.

    You and I, it seems are saying much the same thing (although you haven’t read what I have said! 🙂 ). As a Lutheran pastor, the thoughts that you make in this entry are points that I made for my last years in the Lutheran Church — Missouri Synod. And those points are among the reasons that I am Orthodox today.

    Thanks for your thoughts!

    Ezekiel+

  8. Jonathan Says:

    Father Bless–

    Okay…I thought that was what you were talking about. I agree. Things like one.org, which touts itself as the movement to make poverty history, is good in that it makes a dent in the problem, thereby making it a worthy cause. But, I don’t believe for one second that it will “make poverty history.” Sure, there is enough money in the world to eradicate poverty, just like the U.S. alone has enough food to feed the world. Yet, the fact remains that we’re a fallen world, and it’s not enough to have the means necessary. We must all have the change of heart to do something about it.

    Side note: I sent greetings and love from everyone at St. Anne to Fr. David Rucker by way of the OCMC rep at the College Conference. 🙂

  9. fatherstephen Says:

    Ezekiel,

    I’ve straightened out the grammar – gee it was awful. This is the problem of trying to keep up with the blog during the holidays when I’m out of town, working from a laptop. Not quite the same. Hope this helps

  10. Douglas Ian Says:

    “What’s the difference,” her friend replied. They both have icons, only the American Church has rock and roll!”

    Ouch.

  11. handmaidleah Says:

    Father Bless!
    Perhaps I am jumping the gun on this topic, but ultimately isn’t the whole of American Orthodoxy in the process of ‘Transfiguration’?
    Aren’t we attempting to develope into just such an organic whole? Granted this will take a very long time and jurisdictional issues must be resolved, etc. But eventually, when all of those issues are resolved, there will have developed an American Orthodoxy, just as it (Orthodoxy)developed in other countries. I am sure it will take centuries and will have the flavor of every jurisdiction that came to this country in some way, especially musically. Or maybe not.
    It seems that chaos reigns. But these are macro issues and on the micro level Christ called me to love my neighbor so I will do that.
    Christ is Born
    Glorify Him!
    Leah

  12. Ezekiel Says:

    As one “recently come” to Orthodoxy, I find the concerns regarding jurisdictional unity in this country (USA) interesting. There seem to be voices that say that this MUST happen and it MUST happen now or …. (you fill in the dire consequence). However, the gates of hell will not prevail against the Church! Desirable then, perhaps.

    And, as once lately come, this thing is marvelous: Orthodox are (for the most part) united at the Altar, in the Divine Liturgy! For me, that is a marvelous thing. It is to say, then, that (all things being equal) we ARE united even when we are not united jurisdictionally!

    Now, it seems to me, that since we have this eucharistic fellowship, and while we desire the “political” unity — things don’t have to be (and certainly have not been) “rushed.”

    I recall the phrase oft written in Bishop KALLISTOS’ history that the Divine Liturgy was a blessing during the tumultuous times in the history of the Church!

    Christ is born! Glorify Him!

    Ezekiel+

  13. Fatherstephen Says:

    handmaidleah

    Indeed, I agree with you. There are things each of us can do that foster jurisdictional unity (by practicing love and not being a cause of stumbling for others – that is by not be a cause of jurisdictional separation). But it must be the work of God, for it is the work and life of the Church. It will happen in time, I am convinced. My task, as Rector of a parish, is to be faithful in the meantime, love my neighbor, keep the commandments, and take care of the small things God gives me. The larger things will come – and I think that some of them will come unexpectedly (even in the blink of an eye).

  14. Margi Says:

    The mega-church with icons and rock ‘n’ roll is a pretty chilling picture.

    I have a friend from Botswana who tells me that even people with very ordinary jobs will strive to employ a maid or a gardener or something for a few hours a week, not because they need it and not to show off, but because the idea of “more than enough” is so deeply ingrained that they cannot feel respectable if they don’t do something to help someonelse also have enough.

  15. This Side of the Pulpit » Blog Archive » Welcoming the World with Open Arms Says:

    […] https://fatherstephen.wordpress.com/2006/12/28/… […]

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