July 7, 2015

Acts 28:11-16 “And so we came to Rome”

11 After three months we set sail in a ship which had wintered in the island, a ship of Alexandria, with the Twin Brothers as figurehead. 12 Putting in at Syracuse, we stayed there for three days. 13 And from there we made a circuit and arrived at Rhe′gium; and after one day a south wind sprang up, and on the second day we came to Pute′oli. 14 There we found brethren, and were invited to stay with them for seven days. And so we came to Rome. 15 And the brethren there, when they heard of us, came as far as the Forum of Ap′pius and Three Taverns to meet us. On seeing them Paul thanked [eucharistisas] God and took courage. 16 And when we came into Rome, Paul was allowed to stay by himself, with the soldier that guarded him.

St. Priscilla
Catacomb of St. Priscilla in Rome

In his commentary on Acts, Jaroslav Pelikan focuses special attention on these six words: “And so we came to Rome.” They encapsulate the aim of the mission that started on Pentecost: to bring the message of the gospel to an ever widening circle beginning from Jerusalem, and spreading from there to the whole world, of which Rome was the capital. Coming to Rome was more than a geographic goal. It meant that the Church was launched into history and on to “a world stage” says Pelikan (Acts 2005, 290.) In these few words the Church signifies its refusal to remain in a Judean backwater as an obscure Jewish sect.  As we say in the Creed, the Church is katholike: catholic, universal, for all.

St. Priscilla
Metropolitan Hilarion (Alfeyev) celebrates the Eucharist in the Catacomb of St. Priscilla

Note that when Paul arrives in Sicily and progressively moves up the coast of Italy and then inland to Rome he already finds communities of Christian brethren. We don’t know how or by whom these communities were started, but almost certainly it was through lay people. I heard Metropolitan Kallistos Ware say recently that in the early church it was largely lay persons, who spread the message of Christ one-to-one. There was no special cadre of professionals. The same holds true today: the personal faith, example and witness of the laity remains at the heart of the church’s life and mission.

English translations say that when Paul met with the band of Christians who came out to meet him on the way to Rome he simply “thanked God and took courage.” But the word in Greek for “thanked” is eucharistisas. It’s much more likely that Paul didn’t just give thanks, but shared the Eucharist. From the beginning this was the unifying sign of Christ’s continuing presence among the brethren and which then as now comforts, emboldens and gives courage.

The 18th All-American Council

18th AAC

In less than two weeks the 18th All-American Council (with the theme “How to Expand the Mission”) will be getting underway in Atlanta. In a recent interview—part of a series of interviews with bishops and chancery officers—I was asked some basic questions about this.

What is the All-American Council?

The All-American Council not just a convention, congress or social get-together. It’s the expression of who we are as the Orthodox Church in America. It brings the parishes, dioceses, monasteries and chaplains together. It brings the bishops, clergy and laity together as a council, the highest decision-making body of the Church, seeking the guidance of the Holy Spirit. Worshipping, praying, discussing and debating we have the God-given task of examining the life of our church and setting a direction.

What is the vision of the OCA?

The vision of the Orthodox Church in America is to make accessible to all on this continent the encounter with God as we have come to experience Him in the life of the Orthodox Church: through the scriptures, worship, tradition and saints. 

What can you say about “How to Expand the Mission”?

We can begin by recommitting ourselves to the life in Christ. As we say in the Liturgy, “Let us commend ourselves and each other and all our life to Christ our God.” We as Orthodox Christians have a treasure, whether we realize it or not. And whether our parish is large or small, flourishing or struggling, whatever we have we can offer well. We can conduct our services and ourselves prayerfully, with attention and dignity. We can be a community: noticing each other, bearing one another’s burdens, forgiving each other. We can welcome strangers, whoever they are. We can reach out to the community around us to address real needs. Jesus said to go out to the highways and byways and seek out the poor, the sick and the lame. We can be a place of encountering God’s healing, forgiveness and welcome to everyone, regardless of who they are and what their sins might be.

What are the challenges facing the OCA?

The biggest challenge facing the Orthodox Church generally is “the loss of its catholicity.” This is what Jaroslav Pelikan said in 1999 at the 12th All-American Council in Pittsburgh, and sixteen years later his observation has lost none of its force. We are in danger of losing our breadth, our universality, our sense of reaching out to all, our ability to see God everywhere and in everyone. As Father Alexander Schmemann said, “A Christian is the one who, wherever he looks, finds Christ, and rejoices in Him.” This is the same spirit that Saint Paul expresses in his letter to the Philippians. “Whatever is true, whatever is honorable, whatever is just, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is gracious, if there is any excellence, if there is anything worthy or praise, think about these things” (Phil 4:8).