Christ is Risen!
We know that the Gospels chronicle the earthly ministry and teachings of Jesus Christ. A reading from one of the four Gospels is offered at almost every Divine Service because the ministry and teachings of Christ are the center of our Christian faith.
The Epistles of St. Paul, as well as the other Epistles (James, Peter, John, Jude) are letters to the early churches, with pastoral exhortation, encouragement, and advice for troubleshooting problems. The same issues that have plagued society since the time of the Fall continue to plague our society today. Love was a challenge in the early church—it is still a challenge in the modern church. That’s why we still read from I Corinthians 13 about love, as an example.
The Book of Revelation was placed in the Canon of New Testament Scripture with the provision that it would not be read aloud in church. Centuries ago, before people couldn’t read, no one read this book. Now that people have learned how to read, we see the wisdom of the early church that this book not be read in services, as it is very confusing to most readers.
Which brings us to the Book of Acts. This book was written by St. Luke, as a continuation of his Gospel. It chronicles the establishment of the early church, beginning with the Ascension and Pentecost, and following the ministry of St. Peter (the leader of the Apostles) and later of St. Paul, who was converted to the faith and who with St. Peter is held to be the Paramount of the Apostles.
Much of what is written in Acts gives us not only an insight into the early Church, but a foundation on which our modern churches should conduct themselves. It is no coincidence that the book of Acts is read during the Paschal season. In the season of renewal of our faith, the book of Acts reinforces renewal of our purpose as a church. In the readings from Acts of the previous Sundays of the Paschal season, we read about trust and faith, the basic work of the church, and how God can work through each person. Today brings several new lessons.
The passage begins by recounting the fear that rose over the stoning to death of St. Stephen, and who were now afraid to speak the Word of God to anyone except the Jews. They feared the reaction of the Gentiles. This is a natural reaction to fear is to not take chances. The passage continues that there were certain people from Cyprus and Cyrene who courageously preached the Good News to the Greek as well. God’s hand was with them and protected them from hostility, allowing for the message to take root with them, so that many were believing. The lesson here is the God’s hand goes with those who faithfully teach the Word of God, providing protection and encouragement. And that we should take changes and preach the Word of God to everyone, whether we think they will receive it or reject it.
Word of conversion of Gentiles reached Jerusalem and the Apostles dispatched Barnabas (one of the Seventy Apostles) to Antioch. Barnabas was glad when he came and saw the grace of God at work, and that a large number of people was added to the Lord. One sad lesson from church history is that newcomers to the faith haven’t always been well-received. In fact, in some Orthodox church communities, especially ones that are heavily ethnic, people outside of the dominant ethnic group (Greek, Romanian, Russian, etc.) are not received well. It is feared that outsiders will “dilute the ethnicity.” This comment was actually made to me in the last few weeks, and I serve a community that is not very heavily Greek. So, it is a reality in some of our communities, a sad reality at that. The lesson here is that we should rejoice when people come to Christ, whatever ethnic group they come from. And if non-Greeks join a Greek Orthodox Church, or non-Romanians join a Romanian Orthodox Church, this should be met with joy, not with consternation.
Barnabas, we are told, spend a whole year in this new church community, teaching a large number of people. The lesson here is that we don’t just bring people in for the sake of bringing them in, but we take time to teach them, and people who join the church take time to learn. There have been countless examples of people who have been part of the church for years and lack basic knowledge of the faith. There have also been countless examples of people who have joined the church but have left quickly because they were not embraced. We must embrace visitors and make teaching and learning a priority for everyone, regardless of how long they have been a member.
Finally, when Agabus stood up and foretold that a great famine was going to come over all the world, the disciples got together and organized a relief effort, each one according to his ability. The lesson here is that our church communities are not islands or entities unto themselves. We are part of a greater network of Christian churches, we are part of the city in which our church is located, we are part of a country, and we are connected indeed with all people. Our churches therefore should be set up with ample funds to be sent outside the community—across town or across the world—to help those who are in need.
There are many lessons to be learned about church history from the Book of Acts. Let us take those lessons and apply them to our church communities and our Christian lives!
Psalm 16—God Is Our Security
Preserve me, O God, for in Thee I take refuge. I say to the Lord, “Thou art my Lord; I have no good apart from Thee. As for the saints in the land, they are the noble, in whom is all my delight. Those who choose another god multiply their sorrows; their libations of blood I will not pour out or take their names upon my lips. The Lord is my chosen portion and my cup; Thou holdest my lot. The lines have fallen for me in pleasant places; yea, I have a goodly heritage. I bless the Lord who gives me counsel; in the night also my heart instructs me. I keep the Lord always before me; because He is at my right hand, I shall not be moved. Therefore my heart is glad, and my soul rejoices; my body also dwells secure. For Thou doest not give me up to Sheol, or let Thy godly one see the Pit. Thou dost show me the path of life; in Thy presence there is fullness of joy, in Thy right hand are pleasures forevermore.
Preserve me, O ______, for in Thee I take refuge. See how many things we can fill in the blank with.
Preserve me, O house, for in Thee I take refuge, until I have to move, or you become too big for me to manage, or until the kids move out and I downsize you.
Preserve me, O job, for in Thee I take refuge, until I decide I’ve had enough and quit, or I become old and retire, or they decide they can do better with young and cheaper and get rid of me.
We can’t rely on houses or jobs to preserve us until the end. They come and go. Let’s go to some things that are more permanent.
Preserve me, O spouse, for in Thee I take refuge, I love you with all my heart, but most likely one of us will die first and then I won’t have you.
Preserve me, O children, for in Thee I take refuge, or at least I might once you are an adult, until you marry and have a family of your own.
And even though we love our spouses and our families, we can’t even rely on them until the END. We can rely on them today, but there are plenty of widows who don’t have spouses to rely on and plenty of parents whose children have moved far away. Ok, let’s go to something more personal, our own selves.
Preserve me, O self, for in Thee I take refuge. Except for if I get sick then I might not even be able to do that.
This is why our trust should be placed first and foremost in God, because He is our security. Psalm 16:1 reads: “I will say to the Lord, “Thou art my Lord, I have no good apart from Thee.’” And that’s true. At the end of the day, our faith in God is all we truly have. This is why we read in II Corinthians 6:10, that we can be “sorrowful, yet always rejoicing; as poor, yet making many rich; as having nothing, and yet possessing everything.” Because with a strong faith in God, we can be stripped of everything we have and everyone we love and still feel rich. And without a strong faith in God, we can have everything and everyone and still feel poor and empty. We have no permanent good apart from the Lord. And with the Lord, we are rich despite permanent or temporary loss.
In a time where we are uncertain of how we will move forward as a society, or what the future holds for our health, we can move forward confidently with the Lord, with Him as a security and a surety.
Psalm 16 reads as an affirming statement of faith in God. Read some of these verses over and over again and hold them as mantras, as banners to carry in uncertain times:
“The Lord is my chosen portion and my cup; Thou holdest my lot.” (v. 5) The stock market doesn’t hold it, real estate doesn’t hold it, the news cycle doesn’t dictate it.
“I keep the Lord always before me.” (v. 8) In good times and bad times, on good days and tough ones.
“Because He is my right hand, I shall not be moved.” (v.8) No challenge will separate me from God.
“In Thy presence there is fullness of joy.” (v. 11) Because of the Lord, there is always a place I can find joy.
And because of these things, it is possible for our hearts to be glad, for our souls to rejoice and for our bodies to dwell secure, (v. 9) even in a world that is constantly insecure. Covid-19 did not inaugurate insecurity in the world. Perhaps it punctuated it. But insecurity has been around forever and will still be here when the current challenges have passed. When we hold the Lord and our faith deep within us, we can be filled with joy seemingly at all times. The human side of us will despair at loss. The presence of God in us allows us to see all loss as temporary, and instead to focus on the permanent joy that comes from God. The challenge in a life that is filled with challenges and often with sorrows is to find God’s joy even in sorrow. And this is why we need prayer, Scripture, worship, and encouragement from others, in order to feel filled with God even as life often makes us feel empty.
- Father Stavros, St. John the Baptist, Tampa, FL