Wednesday, September 26, 2012

Elderly Apostle John Chases Down Young Prodigal

In studying the Gospel of John, I stumbled upon a wonderful story of the Apostle John as an old man, and in memory of his repose today in the city of Ephesus the retelling seems appropriate.

John unlike many of the apostles seemed to have never married, being tasked with the care of the Virgin Mary.  Upon her repose, he left Jerusalem and traveled into Asia Minor, where he became the overseer of the churches there making his residence in the city of Ephesus.  During this time, he was exiled and tortured, but eventually made his way back to his beloved city as an old man.

John's life was inflamed by the love of God, and the story below demonstrates the zeal and passion that love had upon his life.
6. “Listen to a tale, which is not a mere tale, but a narrative concerning John the apostle, which has been handed down and treasured up in memory.
For when, after the tyrant’s death, he returned from the isle of Patmos to Ephesus, he went away upon their invitation to the neighboring territories of the Gentiles, to appoint bishops in some places, in other places to set in order whole churches, elsewhere to choose to the ministry some one of those that were pointed out by the Spirit. 
7. When he had come to one of the cities not far away (the name of which is given by some), and had consoled the brethren in other matters, he finally turned to the bishop that had been appointed, and seeing a youth of powerful physique, of pleasing appearance, and of ardent temperament, he said, ‘This one I commit to thee in all earnestness in the presence of the Church and with Christ as witness.’ And when the bishop had accepted the charge and had promised all, he repeated the same injunction with an appeal to the same witnesses, and then departed for Ephesus.
8. But the presbyter taking home the youth committed to him, reared, kept, cherished, and finally baptized him. After this he relaxed his stricter care and watchfulness, with the idea that in putting upon him the seal of the Lord he had given him a perfect protection.
9. But some youths of his own age, idle and dissolute, and accustomed to evil practices, corrupted him when he was thus prematurely freed from restraint. At first they enticed him by costly entertainments; then, when they went forth at night for robbery, they took him with them, and finally they demanded that he should unite with them in some greater crime. 10. He gradually became accustomed to such practices, and on account of the positiveness of his character, leaving the right path, and taking the bit in his teeth like a hard-mouthed and powerful  horse, he rushed the more violently down into the depths.
11. And finally despairing of salvation in God, he no longer meditated what was insignificant, but having committed some great crime, since he was now lost once for all, he expected to suffer a like fate with the rest. Taking them, therefore, and forming a band of robbers, he became a bold bandit-chief, the most violent, most bloody, most cruel of them all.  
12. Time passed, and some necessity having arisen, they sent for John. But he, when he had set in order the other matters on account of which he had come, said, ‘Come, O bishop, restore us the deposit which both I and Christ committed to thee, the church, over which thou presidest, being witness.’
13. But the bishop was at first confounded, thinking that he was falsely charged in regard to money which he had not received, and he could neither believe the accusation respecting what he had not, nor could he disbelieve John. But when he said, ‘I demand the young man and the soul of the brother,’ the old man, groaning deeply and at the same time bursting into tears, said, ‘He is dead.’ ‘How and what kind of death?’ ‘He is dead to God,’ he said; ‘for he turned wicked and abandoned, and at last a robber. And now, instead of the church, he haunts the mountain with a band like himself.' 
14. But the Apostle rent his clothes, and beating his head with great lamentation, he said, ‘A fine guard I left for a brother’s soul! But let a horse be brought me, and let some one show me the way.’ He rode away from the church just as he was, and coming to the place, he was taken prisoner by the robbers’ outpost. 
15. He, however, neither fled nor made entreaty, but cried out, ‘For this did I come; lead me to your captain.’ 16. The latter, meanwhile, was waiting, armed as he was. But when he recognized John approaching, he turned in shame to flee.  
17. But John, forgetting his age, pursued him with all his might, crying out, ‘Why, my son, dost thou flee from me, thine own father, unarmed, aged? Pity me, my son; fear not; thou hast still hope of life. I will give account to Christ for thee. If need be, I will willingly endure thy death as the Lord suffered death for us. For thee will I give up my life. Stand, believe; Christ hath sent me.’ 
18. And he, when he heard, first stopped and looked down; then he threw away his arms, and then trembled and wept bitterly. And when the old man approached, he embraced him, making confession with lamentations as he was able, baptizing himself a second time with tears, and concealing only his right hand. 
19. But John, pledging himself, and assuring him on oath that he would find forgiveness with the Saviour, besought him, fell upon his knees, kissed his right hand itself as if now purified by repentance, and led him back to the church. And making intercession for him with copious prayers, and struggling together with him in continual fastings, and subduing his mind by various utterances, he did not depart, as they say, until he had restored him to the church, furnishing a great example of true repentance and a great proof of regeneration, a trophy of a visible resurrection.”  - from Church History by Eusebius

May God give us such zeal not just in youth but even at the end of our life!

Theron Mathis

Thursday, September 20, 2012

What is John's Mission in His Gospel?

I love the Gospel of John. 

If for no other reason, it is different.  Unlike the other three gospels, there is no birth story, no temptation, or no transfiguration. 

In Orthodoxy, we read John in the lectionary during the Easter season.  The Gospel for Easter Sunday is John’s Prologue in Chapter 1. 

This gives a clue as to why the Church thinks John was written.  The newly baptized experiencing their first Liturgy on Easter Sunday begin to read a new Gospel – the Gospel of John.  John himself proclaims his purpose for writing at the end of his book.  He wrote so that the reader would know that Jesus is the Son of God, and by trusting in Him, would have eternal life. 

John is designed to bolster faith, perhaps in the face of heresy, for there were many false teachers who questioned the fullness of Jesus’ humanity and divinity.  Or perhaps, John is trying to protect us not from the heresy of the head, but of the heart.  

In a later book, John chides his own flock in his adopted city of Ephesus never to abandon their first love, because the path of heresy, the desertion of the faith, the denial of Jesus as God, begins at the point of love. 
To lose this personal connection, to open the heart to other affections, will only draw us slowly away from Christ. 

So how does John accomplish this in this Gospel.
  1. He guides us through path of faith.  He tells us story of water, bread, light, and life, reminding us of our baptism, our reception of Communion, the light of the commandments, and the life that comes.  This is our journey from death to life. 
  2.  He shows us signs of Godhead breaking into our life.  John has no miracles.  He has signs, and yes they are miraculous, but they are few (only 7), and they reveal Jesus.
  3. We hear the voice of Jesus.  Jesus himself proclaims His divinity by using the Old Testament name for God – I  AM.  Yet, He does so in relation to our life.  He says, I AM the Living Water, I AM the Bread of Life, I AM the Light of the World.  We need to hear these because they touch us where we are.
  4. We hear the voice of others.   John the Baptist witness, other disciples witness, the Father and the Spirit witness to who Jesus is. 

John proudly proclaims that Jesus is the one with the power to save, the one to transform us, the one who can teach us to love.  

Friday, September 14, 2012

The Orthodox Mega-Church?

I believe in the mega-church. 

Over the last 30 years, American Christianity has seen the rise of the mega-church.  

According to sociologists, the mega-church is defined by having 2000+ members. 

In my backyard, exists the fifth largest church in the US, Southeast Christian Church, with a membership of 30k and average weekly attendance of 20k. 

No doubt this type of church can only exist in the numbers it does today, due to our mobile environment.  You can live 10 – 15 miles from the church, and still be an active participant due to quick and easy transportation.  Historically, you went to church where you lived, and usually within walking distance, and a church could only grow to such numbers in a densely populated area. 

Because of the size of these churches, certain advantages began to happen.  First is that growth generates more growth.  One trend-observer said: “You hit a certain size and you can become self-generating. You attract people by your sheer size. People know that you are on TV and that this is that big place...There is a sense of something going on here...and size itself begets more growth.”

To perpetuate this size, the leadership must demonstrate dynamic communication skills and organizational shrewdness that typically has only been found in high-level business environments.  Dynamism must be present to attract and retain members as well as a variety of organized and well-designed programs executed and produced with excellence. 

The sheer numbers of people attending contribute to a crowdsourcing phenomenon.  Crowdsourcing allows problems to be broadcast to an unknown group of solvers in the form of an open call for solutions.  In a church environment, the open call to develop & innovate ministry within and without a congregation allows a greater variety of programs to develop. 

The newest development among mega churches is the multi-site church.  Rather than continuing to grow larger and larger, these churches have decided to replicate themselves at other geographical locations. 

In 1990, there were 10 multi-site churches.  In ’98, there were about 100, and by 2008, over 2000 multi-site churches existed throughout the US. 

This is different from the church plant of old, where a team of members would leave to start a new autonomous church.  In this model, the new church is planted but remains under the authority of the “mother church”.  The head pastor in effect becomes the leader or overseer of the multiple churches.  In another time or place, he would be called a “bishop”.

This is the model of the Orthodox Church. 

The light bulb came on while listening to an interview with Fr. John Braun.  His biggest challenge to North American Orthodox is more to create more parishes, and I think he right. 

I believe it is one way we can compete in the religious marketplace within North America.  

I work in marketing, and we constantly talk about increasing distribution points to increase market share.  We can have slick ads and robust products with competitive prices, but if people can’t get to the product then we never sell anything.  One way we can be successful is create more places to distribute our goods. 

The parish is the distribution point of Orthodoxy. 

In America, the vast majority of people that regularly attend church go to congregations of 100-500 people.  Once a parish hits 300-500 people, it should begin praying about and developing a team of people to start of new parish. 

Sure, there will be fear.  Fear that the starting church will lose too many members.  Fear that the new mission will not succeed.  Unless we try, we will never know.

Money will be a fear, but practically, 10 tithing families should be able to support a priest at their average salary.  That does not seem too daunting. 

Multiple parishes can come together for the Sunday of Orthodoxy, festivals, youth and children’s activities. 

The more parishes we have the smaller dioceses can become, and will give bishops greater contact with their flocks. 

Bishops of North America, prod us to start new missions, equip us with the tools and strategies.  Push us to do more and reach more people! 

Theron Mathis

Tuesday, September 11, 2012

To Be Wise You Must Get Out Of Your Head

For years, I found myself geeking out at the intricacies of theology, the minutiae of textual criticism, the obscurities of history.  It’s one of the reasons I spent years in undergraduate and graduate school reading dusty books and ancient scholars.  Post-college, I continued dipping into various theologies as a pastime – some watch Sports Center, I picked up Lossky.  Finding my way to Orthodoxy did give me an ocean of theology so deep I often felt like I was drowning, but eventually I found my way back to shore only to come back another day. 

... continued here

Wednesday, September 05, 2012

The Problem of Orthodox Culture

Over the past months several Orthodox writers have taken up the topic of Orthodox culture and whether we can create one in this country.  Much of the writing flows out the pens of artists, so I am sure that this is a desire longing for an ethos where there is a richness of art seen in places like old Russia with majestic architecture, beautiful music and haunting works of literature. 

I long for this too.

What is the critical mass of people for such a culture to emerge?  Evangelicals have had this mass in America for some time, but only recently is there a serious arts movement bubbling up. 

Rather than a culture of high art, I propose we are looking for community, and this is the base where we must start. The magnet that draws Americans into the Evangelical world, robust Catholic life, and even stranger American movements such as Mormonism is not theology, but community.  This is a place where you can enter and every part of your life is infected by it. 

For these believers, opportunity is given to immerse themselves not only in the worship and in the dogma of their faith, but their life and relationships are intertwined in their “church” life.  Ministry, schools, sports, fellowship, etc. force them to live so closely together a fabric of continuity and group life is maintained and perpetuated. 

In Orthodoxy, our theology demands community.  For many American faiths, truth is disembodied, an ethereal concept or philosophy, perhaps an ideal to attain, but in Orthodoxy, truth must have flesh. 
This “truth made flesh” is where we must begin if culture is to be created.  Our faith can’t be relegated to 2hrs a week of Liturgy where interaction with other persons are minimal.  Even multiple services will fail us unless we learn to live with each other in sacrificial love. 

We must create community, and in our fragmented American suburban society this will take work.  Consistent programming must be created where we can minister together and fellowship with one another.  No longer can we rely on family, ethnic, or neighborhood connections for this to occur naturally.  We are too diverse and scattered. 

Our deepest relationships for ourselves and especially our children must be among those of our parish and the surrounding Orthodox community.  Our life must be made up of the people of our faith, and we should live with each other in the shadow of the church’s dome. 

For me culture is a problem of community and until we develop community within our own parishes and our neighboring parishes (regardless of jurisdiction) a recognizable Orthodox culture will not be seen in this land.  

What do you think?

For other blogs on this topic see the following links:

  • Melinda Johnson on No Orthodox Culture & Fracture Lines in Orthodox Culture
  • Dn Stephen Hayes of Khanya on Orthodoxy and culture
  • Jonathan Kotinek of Fixing a Hole on Orthodox Synchroblog – Orthodoxy and Culture
  • Katherine Hyde of God Haunted Fiction on Literature and Orthodox Culture

  • Theron Mathis


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