October 3, 2014

The Acts of the Apostles

“But you shall receive power when the Holy Spirit has come upon you; and you shall be my witnesses in Jerusalem and in all Judea and Samaria and to the end of the earth.” (Acts 1:8)

Then he opened their minds to understand the scriptures, and said to them, “Thus it is written, that the Christ should suffer and on the third day rise from the dead, and that repentance and forgiveness of sins should be preached in his name to all nations, beginning from Jerusalem. You are witnesses of these things. And behold, I send the promise of my Father upon you; but stay in the city until you are clothed with power from on high.” (Luke 24:45-49)

Before there ever was a New Testament Book there was a New Testament Church. By the end of the first century AD dozens of small communities had sprung up in Palestine, Asia Minor, Greece and beyond, all of them centered on the crucified and risen Jesus Christ. How did this happen? How did this obscure Jewish sect spread so rapidly, especially in the face of opposition and strife both internal and external? To the early church itself it was clear that God’s miraculous power was behind this, and this is the theme of the Acts of the Apostles.

St Luke
Apostle and Evangelist Luke

Sometime around 65 AD, or perhaps as late as 90 AD, the evangelist Luke wrote Acts as the follow-up volume to his version of the Gospel. If the Gospel of Luke is about Christ’s work, then Acts is about the Holy Spirit’s work. As Saint John Chrysostom said, “The Gospels are a history of what Christ did and said; but the Acts, of what that ‘other Comforter’ said and did.”

Acts of Apostles
The Acts of the Apostles, title page of Greek manuscript

Acts take the Gospel to the next stage, by demonstrating how the Resurrection of Christ was lived out in the people and communities of the early church. Despite all their human frailties, they were indeed “Clothed with power from on high,” such that God’s work among them was manifest to others. Indeed, says Saint John Chrysostom, without this who would believe their claims about the death and resurrection of Jesus?

For if the disciples themselves were at first incredulous and were troubled, and needed the evidence of actual touch with the hand, and of His eating with them, how would it have fared in all likelihood with the multitude? For this reason therefore by the miracles worked by the apostles He renders the evidence of His resurrection unequivocal, so that not only the people of those times…but also the people thereafter, should be certain of the fact that He was risen. Upon this ground also we argue with unbelievers. For if He did not rise again, but remains dead, how did the apostles perform miracles in His name?

Human beings are and ought to be skeptical of outrageous claims, says Saint John, hence the need for convincing divine power working through changed lives. Without that, the claims of the fishermen would be worthless.

For this would be the greatest miracle, that without any miracles the whole world should have eagerly come to be taken in the nets of twelve poor and illiterate men. For not by wealth of money, not by wisdom of words, not by anything else of this kind did the fishermen prevail. So that objectors must even against their will acknowledge that there was in these men a divine power, for no human strength could ever possibly effect such great results.

Over the next few months in the Chancellor’s Diary I’ll be reflecting on the Acts of the Apostles as part of the lead-up to the All-American Council of the Orthodox Church in America as we consider the question posed by Saint Tikhon to the gathering of clergy and faithful in 1907, “How to Expand the Mission?” 

Catching Up

I’ve been in Ottawa (actually, across the river in Gatineau, Quebec) since Wednesday with Metropolitan Tikhon for the Archdiocese of Canada special assembly for nomination of a new diocesan bishop and for the clergy synaxis. Around fifty clergy and lay representatives from across Canada are here, from White Horse to Halifax. Bishop Irénée was nominated yesterday in an overwhelming show of support. He has been administrator of the Archdiocese during the last very difficult four years and his nomination is a sign of much needed healing.

It has been a full few days since I last wrote in the Chancellor’s Diary. 

9/27 Saint Sergius celebration at the Chancery and granting of the first four Saint Romanos awards. The beautiful Liturgy in the garden (it was spectacular fall weather), with a combined choir from the seminaries, bishops, clergy and faithful and fellowship afterwards was a perfect gift.

9/30 Preconciliar Commission meeting at the Chancery to continue planning for the All-American Council in Atlanta this July. That evening I went to Fordham University with my wife for the annual “Orthodoxy in America Lecture” sponsored by the Orthodox Christian Studies Center there. Rowan Williams, the former Archbishop of Canterbury, was given an honorary doctorate and then gave a lecture on “Liturgical Humanism: Orthodoxy and the Transfomation of Culture.” Williams is widely respected as an authority on Orthodox thought (his DPhil thesis at Oxford was on Vladimir Lossky) and his address was a profound reflection on the meaning of liturgy, drawing deeply on Olivier Clement and Alexander Schmemann.

Bishop Irénée
Metropolitan Tikhon and Bishop Irénée

10/1 Divine Liturgy for the Protection of the Mother of God at the Chancery, PCC meeting concluded, La Guardia airport flight to Ottawa, caught end of the Archdiocesan council meeting that finished around 10 pm.

10/2 Hierarchical Divine Liturgy presided by Metropolitan Tikhon followed by the special assembly, and nomination of Bishop Irénée.

* * *

Archbishop Rowan Willams ended his lecture with a story from the Soviet era. A young Orthodox Christian woman had been detained by the authorities and was being interrogated. The officer was surprised that this intelligent woman was committed to Christianity, and wondered if it made her “happy.”  And she replied, “You are not a Christian to be happy: you are a Christian to be alive.”