The great philosopher Socrates once said, “Know thyself”. The importance of knowing oneself cannot be overestimated. If we don’t know who we are as beings created in the image of God, our lives will become a purposeless and meaningless existence of just trying to stay ahead of the monthly bills, trying to find pleasure and entertainment here and there and just doing the same old daily routines in this rat race we call civilization.
Well, the same applies to the Church. If we, as the members of the Church, do not have an adequate understanding as to what it means to be a church, along with the proper priorities and goals, the church life will be one of mediocrity and without value or effect in the life of the parishioners.
The Church was born on the day of Pentecost by the supernatural power of God. And the Church was given a supernatural commission. Shortly before He ascended to heaven, our Lord promised His followers that He would send the Holy Spirit to them. The Holy Spirit was to be God’s presence and power in the life of the believers. We read in the last chapter of Matthew’s Gospel, Christ’s great commission to His followers just before His ascension: “Go, then, to all peoples everywhere and make them my disciples: baptize them in the name of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit, and teach them to obey everything I have commanded you”.
Therefore, the justification for the existence of the church and so, the basic priorities are: to (1) make disciples of all people, (2) to baptize them in the name of the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit, (3) to teach the message of the Gospel, and to these we may add, (4) to worship God.
Specifically, the meaning of the term “ church”, is taken from two Greek words. One is “ kurion”, which is the reference to “ those who belong to the Lord”; and also the other Greek term, “ ekklesia” which has to do with “ the assembly” of those who profess faith in Jesus Christ. Therefore, putting these two ideas together, we get this definition of the Church: it is “ the Lord’s holy congregation”. It is the congregation of those who belong to the Lord. It is precisely due to this understanding of the definition of Church, that in the mind of the Armenian Church Fathers, and also of the ancient churches in general, that to belong to the Church is equated to belonging to the Lord. Hence the designation, “ Christian”.
In St. Paul’s letter to the Ephesians, we are presented with a most beautiful imagery of the Church and Her relationship to Christ. The fifth chapter compares the Church to the Bride of Christ. We are told that in His great love for the Church, the Lord even sacrificed His own life, so that His Bride, that is, His holy people, will be cleansed of their deathly sins, and be presented to God. The fact that we were purchased at a very high price and belong to the Lord is also brought out in St. Paul’s 1st letter to the Corinthians. We read in the 6th chapter, verse 19, “ You do not belong to yourselves but to God; He bought you for a price”. These passages add more insight into our relationship to Christ through the Church.
If we were to read more from these passages, for example, verse 15 of the Corinthian passage, we would understand that the Church is also the mystical Body of Christ of which He is the Head. It is also explained that each believer is a part of that Body. As parts of His Body, we are connected to each, other and to Christ. What this means is that Jesus Christ is made visible to the world at large through His holy congregation, the believers. We are His hands, His feet, his muscles and so on. Christ uses the Church as His Body to carry out the work of God on earth. Therefore, others must see Christ in us - and through us, that is the Church, people must be reached with God’s love, mercy, the Good News of His Kingdom and the message of His Salvation. This is what it means to be the Church, and these are the basic functions of the Church.
Everything else we do in the name of the Church, whether it is the ordination of a young man to the priesthood, the election of a person to the Parish Council, the formation of a Summer Camp Board, or the formation of the Summer Camp Planning Committee, the organization of various events such as Church bazaars and parties - no matter what we do in the name of the Church, it must contribute in one way or another to the primary goal of the Church which is to preach the Good News and to bring others to God - otherwise, whatever we do, will contribute to the failure of the church and will manifest disunity with the Head of the Church, who is Christ the Lord.
In the great commission which was given to the disciples by Christ, one of the duties was to teach. The lack of spiritual knowledge on the part of a great majority of our people has resulted in much heartache and lack of accomplishments in the area of church growth. As well as teaching what the Church is, we must also teach our people what the Church is not.
The same applies to the church. If we as the members of the church do not have an adequate understanding as to what it means to be a church, along with the proper priorities and goals, and if we do not realize what our personal place and function is in the church, then we will open our church doors to all types of problems & dangers.
There are many wrong perceptions as to the primary existence of the church. The church is not simply the social gathering place for the local Armenians, although it is a wonderful place for Armenians and non Armenian parishioners to gather and to enjoy each others company. This perception of the church will never produce a future for the church through our young people because it is getting more and more difficult to keep our youth in the church simply because of their ethnic identity.
And it is not a service center, existing just to cater to baptisms, weddings, funerals and so on: this is the view of the church as a business. The church is not a business, although we do incorporate certain good business practices in order to be better managers of the money with we have been entrusted.
There must be a balance between wise spending and giving. Our Lord did not say, "Take, take, take and more will be given to you", but rather, He said, "Give and it shall be given to you" (Luke. 6:38). If the church cannot give, it will not receive.
When the church is perceived as a service center or as a business, it will never have the commitment of its people, especially the youth we so desperately want to keep. Whoever heard of anyone who made an emotional commitment to a callous business operation? And if the members themselves perceive the church as a service center, it will result in competitions and rivalries among the various groups and personalities.
But when the church is perceived as our spiritual mother, who has much to offer and to give to her children, it will then enjoy the bond of its people. People will give of their time and money much more freely.
When people truly believe in something and are convinced of its importance, they will support it financially, even in economically difficult times. Our job is to do Gods will, and His job is to provide for all our needs.
Once, a father was frying eggs for he and his young son. The little boy made a joke and asked his father, "Dad, how can you eat an egg without cracking the shell?" The father thought for a few minutes and finally replied, "I don't know". The little boy, with a smile on his face said, "Have someone else crack it for you".
The father thought to himself and said, "This reminds me of some church people. They want the benefits the church offers without sharing the responsibilities. They want spiritual renewal in the church, but they refuse to pray. They want good programs as long as someone else does the work. I guess if you want eggs, you're going to have to crack some eggs!"
Our Epistle reading for today, taken from St. Paul's 1st Letter to the Corinthians, chapter 12, deals with the function of the church members. He describes the church in a most unusual and unique way: he describes the church as a living organism, as a body having Christ as its head as we read in verse 27.
In verses 21 & 22, St. Paul writes: "The eye cannot say to the hand, I do not need you! and the head cannot say to the feet, I don't need you! On the contrary, those parts that seem weaker are indispensable..." Later in that paragraph, he adds, "But God has combined the members of the body and has given greater honor to the parts that lacked it, so that there should be no division in the body, but that its parts should have equal concern for each other".
This should make us outrageously happy! What this is in fact telling us is that, Christ loves His church so much that He does not simply consider us as an attached members of the church, but that we are the parts and members of His body - it is a most personal and intimate union.
We are to view each other as equals and share each others concerns, happiness and pain. We are not to compete with each other, but to compliment each other, working harmoniously for the same goals.
And getting back to what I said in the beginning of my sermon, it is vital for us to understand ourselves. Do you understand your place in the body of Christ? Do you understand your role and function in the life of the church?
As I said last week, anyone who waits to be invited to serve the church, is like someone who expects to be invited to pick weeds in his own front yard.
Everyone is important and everyone has a place in the church, from the one who picks up the mess after the church dinners, to the one who is an elected lay leader working to direct the church, and to the pastor. We are all of equal value and worth to God, only our functions are different.
The priest is the spiritual leader and the head administrator of the parish. His primary function is to lead the worship life of the community; to defend, to preach and to teach the faith of the Armenian Apostolic Church and to visit the flock and to oversee the operation of the church.
The function of the elected lay leaders may be summed up in this way: to help with the administrative function of the church in order to free the pastor to fulfill his primary duties. Did you know that the Parish Council members are essentially deacons in the Biblical sense? When the early church grew to a large size, the Apostles found it increasingly difficult to manage the distribution of food to the widows and orphans of the church, and to look after the details of finances and other matters. That is why they selected 7 deacons to be their helpers. Those men were the Apostles helpers in these matters, so that the Apostles could be general managers of the church administration and have time for their primary function.
It is unfortunate that the nominating committee is having such a hard time finding candidates for the Parish Council. This is an important ministry needed by the church of God.
And the function of the people in general is to give moral support, to offer prayers for their leaders, to help out financially and also to give of their time and talents for the work and mission of the church.
This is what it means to be a church. We all have a part in the body of Christ, and no one is insignificant. We all need each other and we must love each other as Christ loves us and has commanded us to. Amen.
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