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December 2nd, 2008

An Orthodox Understanding of St. Paul

The Year of St. Paul Ecumenical Gathering

Fr John Chagnon

St. Elias Orthodox Church, LaCrosse, Wisconsin

My first words as I stand before you are words of thanks for Fr. Augustine and the people of Christ Church for hosting this event. I appreciate your willingness to lend your beautiful parish home to St. Elias on this evening. Your generosity reflects the many years in which the people of St. Elias would experience the hospitality of Christ Church for weddings and other events too large for our temple. To this day, as well, we are linked by family ties going back and forth between our two parishes.

My next words are about my parish, St. Elias, which has existed in this community since 1912 and has been a spiritual home first for the Orthodox immigrants from the Middle East who settled in LaCrosse and now for an English speaking multi-ethnic community of people who come from as far away as Kazakhstan and as close as a few blocks up the street.

St. Elias, named after the Old Testament prophet Elijah (Orthodox venerate the holy memories of those who both came before and after Christ) was founded by Bishop RAPHAEL Hawaweeny, the first Orthodox Bishop consecrated in the United States, and who, as the Bishop of the Syrian department of the Russian Orthodox Church, traveled throughout this country gathering scattered groups of Middle Eastern immigrants, called collectively “Syrians”, into Orthodox parishes. Among our treasured records are copies of old newspaper articles describing his visits to LaCrosse and even his personal handwriting on some of our older documents. These are treasures to us as I will explain later.

In the years following the founding of St. Elias, and Bishop RAPHAEL’s death in 1917, events would tear at the unity of the various Orthodox parishes in this country. It is the normal practice of Orthodox to have one church, one jurisdiction, in a single country and as the Russian Church was first to arrive in this land they were given the canonical oversight of all Orthodox communities in this country. The communist revolution in Russia, however, both compromised and crippled the Church to the end that it was no longer able to exercise that role here and so the individual ethnic communities appealed to their mother churches for support. It was during this time that what had been, in rough terms, the larger part of the Syrian Department of the Russian Orthodox Church, including the parish of St. Elias, returned to the care of the Patriarch of Antioch. Since that time it has remained a community of what is now known as the Antiochian Orthodox Christian Archdiocese of North America. Several years ago the Antiochian Archdiocese received its autonomy, which means it now largely governs its own affairs in the United States and Canada while maintaining a fraternal and canonical connection to the historic Patriarchate of Antioch, one of the five original patriarchates of the undivided Church, the others being Alexandria, Jerusalem, Constantinople, and Rome.

Bishop RAPHAEL, whose missionary endeavors were crucial to the birth and sustenance of our Archdiocese, was canonized, or as Orthodox say “glorified” as a Saint of the Church in the year 2000, and his incorrupt relics were transferred from Brooklyn, New York to the Antiochian Village in Ligonier, Pennsylvania where his memory and grave are venerated by the faithful. When one passes by the simple white structure of St. Elias Church looks can be deceiving. As humble as our building is it may be, and I’m not an adept historian of LaCrosse, the only parish in this community founded and visited by a Saint of the Church. To we who worship there now his presence among us is more significant than the plaque on our foundation designating our building as a historic place. After all, an old building is not hard to find, but a Saint is an irreplaceable treasure.

From its earliest years the community of St. Elias was small and for many years was without resident clergy and yet a core of people continued to keep the flame of Orthodox faith alive helped along by traveling Priests from both the Greek and Antiochian communities. In the 1970’s St. Elias was restarted with a resident Priest and since that time inquirers and converts have added their names to the familiar Arabic and Greek pioneers creating a parish remarkable for a vibrant cultural diversity knit together by an universal and unchanging Orthodox Faith. And although we’re part of the fabric of LaCrosse’s North Side, the historic home of the Syrian immigrant population, our members and friends regularly come from as far away as Black River Falls to Minnieska, Minnesota, south to the Iowa border, and all points in between.

It is to this parish that I came in August of 2005, a kid from Wausau, baptized in the Methodist Church, raised in the Plymouth Brethren, and a Baptist preacher who took the long winding road to my home in Orthodoxy. Together we’ve been busy over on our little plot of land by the Loggers’ stadium, painting, fixing, building, cleaning up and straightening out because we believe we have a future here and that the time has come for us reach out and serve this community in the spirit of Orthodox Faith. I could not be prouder of the effort the good people of St. Elias have put into this work and we look forward to one day having all of you in our building when everything’s done!

Now we Orthodox come to ecumenical gatherings like this one celebrating St. Paul from an interesting perspective. We’re catholic, but not Roman. We’re unashamedly a patriarchal church but we venerate women as equal to the Apostles. We live and succeed in the modern world but our Faith is rooted in the very beginning of Christianity. We have electric lights, computers, and widescreen TV’s, but we still like to pray with candles. People looking at us from the outside often see us as mystical, exotic even, but for the most part we’re just ordinary people given, despite our sins, an extraordinary and ancient Church. We’re all over the world, the second largest community of Christians and yet we don’t usually seek out or make headlines. We have families that have been Orthodox for a thousand years and yet in the past decades we’ve seen a tremendous surge of inquirers and converts. At present over 70 percent of the clergy in our Archdiocese became Orthodox as adults. We are a family, a communion of churches with a deep, shared, and unaltered Faith and yet we have no central bureaucracy, no one place to call home except the hearts of the faithful. In some places we are a state church but for much of our history we’ve lived under oppression. People think of us as ethnic, and in some places we are, but we’re also the faith that embraced the language of the people, transformed it into Liturgy, and Christianized cultures. You may know us for our baklava but we understand ourselves to belong to a global body of faith, diverse in nation but united in worship.

Orthodoxy is a sensual Faith because it understands that the whole person, body, mind, and soul worships. Orthodoxy is a dogmatic faith in that we have unchanging principles and yet we see these principles not so much as sterile theological ideas but rather as a call to live in union with God. Orthodoxy is a liturgical faith where a hymn 300 years old is still considered new and timeless rhythms are celebrated at 10:00 AM sharp. Orthodoxy is a Eucharistic faith where the bread of heaven feeds us now in anticipation of a day to come. If you wish to see us in our natural habitat come see us in worship, that unchanging moment when time stands still, eternity and the present merge, and the kingdom of God is among us even if we sometimes sing off key.

Orthodoxy is ancient. That church in Antioch mentioned in the book of Acts is literally us, not metaphorically, not in spirit, or in the abstract, but literally who we are and our patriarchal properties are still on the border of the street called Straight in Damascus. We value Tradition, which for us means the experience of the Holy Spirit in the life of the Church through time. We practice what G.K. Chesterton called the “democracy of the dead” in that while much of America seems to be rushing toward whatever is next and new, even in theology, we choose to listen to the voices of those who were close to Christ and see our task not as one of invention but of replicating the ancient Faith of the Church in each generation and in every place where we find ourselves. Because of this we are never alone; we always walk in the presence of, as the New Testament states, “a great cloud of witnesses…” whose faith and life call us over the centuries to run the race in our own fragment of history.

And the purpose of all that we do we call “theosis” the transformation of who we are, and all of what we are, by the grace of God and the life of the Holy Spirit within us, into the image and likeness of Christ. While we live in this world and engage it with our lives we understand we belong to something larger, the Kingdom of God, and this Kingdom, present with and in us, is the final destination of all creation. We seek, as individuals and communities, to be the reality of God’s future in the present, and in the process become ourselves what God created us to be, the purest example of which is our Lord Jesus Christ. This is why Orthodox Christians celebrate Christmas, what we call Nativity, but treasure Epiphany, what we call Theophany. The first celebrates the arrival of Christ which is surely noteworthy, but the other calls to mind for us the reason He came, namely that the whole world, including ourselves, would be transfigured by the glory of God.

This, of course, is hardly an exhaustive portrayal of Orthodox Christianity. It’s rather an attempt to paint a masterpiece with splotches in consideration of time. But from these splotches there are several things that would be worth mentioning in this forum regarding the Orthodox understanding of St. Paul.

First we as Orthodox have some difficulty with a kind of theological autopsy on the Apostle Paul that often passes as reflection. It seems the custom in some places to encounter the remains of St. Paul, post mortem, and then engage in a surgical process of organ removal and examination to see in the parts what made the whole alive. This is a process fraught with peril because all of us are more than the sum of our parts and certainly St. Paul’s words using the image of the human body and its necessary wholeness as a metaphor for the church would also provoke some caution in this regard. Christians, even Orthodox ones, have a tendency to take a certain part of our historical figures and use that part to explain the whole as if we could disregard the rest of a body for the sake of a finger.

This is especially dangerous in this time in our culture because we are saturated in a stew of our own arrogance. We assume, in our post modern world, that we have the right and the skills to shape our own realities, our own truths, and our own theologies entirely in the context of ourselves with no need of recourse to anything beyond us. So we feel free to examine a part of something, shape its meaning to our own ends, and then project this out as truth. In this St. Paul becomes a dead figure whose parts can be manipulated for the needs of the one studying. So we have debates and symposia about both whether St. Paul was a feminist or a misogynist, a moralist or a closeted homosexual, with the net result being the modern equivalent of the men of Athens who, as the book of Acts recalls, spent their days in the agora looking only to talk about some new thing.

To this spirit Orthodoxy would respond that there is no sufficient way to explain and understand the life and teaching of St. Paul by reduction. To know St. Paul requires an ability to take the whole of his teaching and life as an entity and resist the temptation to stake a claim on any part as indicative of the whole. This demands the skill to live with a kind of dynamic, a tension, and not miss the forest for the trees. The Saint who asked wives to submit to their husbands also asked husbands to give up their life for their wives. The man who preferred celibacy also approved of the union of a man and woman in marriage. The Apostle who spoke of God’s judgment against the debaucheries of his age was also willing to endure storm and prison and deprivation to speak words of mercy and hope to those whose actions he critiqued. The Pharisee steeped in the value of his own traditions was willing to become a Jew to Jews, a Roman to Romans, and a Greek to Greeks for the sake of their salvation. St. Paul is complex, we all are, and this complexity, this mystery, if you will, is perfectly acceptable to Orthodox who are not plagued with the Western obsession with minute detail. Just as we would find it a kind of disrespect to have someone in some future time examine a fragment of our lives or our words and declare from that portion the reality of the whole so we must, when approaching St. Paul, give him the same consideration and see a moment of struggle with an aspect of his life and ministry not as a defeat of our intellectual prowess but rather as an opportunity to grow by virtue of contemplation.

In addition we as Orthodox have a very lively sense of the communion of saints. For us the Church is not simply whoever happens to be gathering at a particular moment in time but includes, as living members, those who have gone before. So St. Paul is not a piece of archaeology for us, but part of us as much as he was, and perhaps more, then when he set out from Antioch, the church, our church, where he was a charter member, on his missionary endeavor. In Orthodoxy no one is allowed to remain in the past, we are all together alive in Christ, and the mere inconvenience of death changes this not a bit. There are many who will argue about the relevance of St. Paul in these times but for we who are Orthodox this argument presupposes something we do not share, namely that he is absent from us, a bit of a bygone era that can be examined as something distinct from us.

Next, and this is a sensitive part at an ecumenical gathering, we Orthodox would posit that any examination of the life, ministry, and meaning, of St. Paul must have, as an integral component, the community in which his ministry began and it’s Tradition. In our age it’s considered novel and trendy to see the past and the historic Faith of the Church as an anachronism, something out of time and place in this age of computers and global knowledge. Dogma is for some bygone age. Truth is subjective. The Church and its teachings are not rooted in transcendent truth but rather exist to meet my needs and whatever I find uncomfortable I can discard. Yet I would suggest to you that the farther away one steps from the historic faith of the Church the more difficult it is to understand St. Paul and indeed to understand Christ. The idea of the Church as the ground of faith by virtue of its being the body of Christ, the community in and through which meaning and correct understanding are gained, has had a rough time in our consumer culture. We’re all popes now, all doctors of the church, all saints, and each of us is infallible in our own eyes as we speak from our private cathedras. But Orthodoxy would proclaim that to know the Faith, to know those in the Faith like St. Paul, to even truly know ourselves, requires us to have the Faith and mind and heart of the Church and its Lord as ours. When one travels to a foreign land it is good to know the language to appreciate and understand the culture in which you are journeying. In the Orthodox vision, the language of the historic Faith of the undivided Church is the language of Christianity, the grounds upon which it, and those within it, can best be understood. Without this “language” the fullness of the life of St. Paul, and indeed the fullness of the Christian faith, will remain elusive.

This is a hard word to say because the goal in an ecumenical gathering is to focus on what can be shared and not that which makes us different. But as a part of the diverse spectrum of Christian faith and practice this is what Orthodoxy believes; the proper understanding of the Faith, the notables of the Faith like St. Paul, and even our selves is rooted within the context of the Church and its undivided Faith.The farther we drift from that Faith, St. Paul’s faith, the more difficult it comes to understand St. Paul, or even Christ, and what we are often left with is projections of ourselves as a substitute for authentic truth.

And yet within the Orthodox context the Faith and mind of the Church is not so much dogma and propositions to be studied and debated, although these are very much part of who we are, but rather a life to be lived. We as Orthodox would suggest that true theology is undivided thought and action. We claim, as Orthodox, that a theologian is one who prays and one who prays is a theologian. Action and contemplation are inseparably linked as faith without works is dead. People ask Orthodox “What do you believe?” and we respond, “Come to worship with us, come and see.” Even the humblest among us who lives the life of faith is more significant than the greatest scholar who can parse the original languages to the participle but remain unchanged.

Because of this we Orthodox would say if you wish to know St. Paul submit your life to Christ as he did. If you want to understand his words come to understand the Eucharist as he did the body and blood of Christ, and participate in this mystery with his awe and reverence. If you desire to know St. Paul’s heart ask God for a heart that would burn for the salvation of your neighbors and the world like St. Paul who was willing to trade his own damnation for the salvation of his fellow Jews. Become a person who would pray even for the political authorities seeking to kill you and you’ll come to understand St. Paul’s faith. Have no other ultimate hope than in Christ and you will know his mind. Strive to be pure in a world where depravity is in abundance and you will comprehend every word he wrote in way that has eluded you before. Endure suffering with hope and St. Paul will be relevant to you in a way that no lecture will ever afford. Seek to nurture faith, hope, and love in their truest forms in your own life and the meaning of who he is will become clear.

In the end this is what really matters, not that we celebrate or study or analyze the life and work of St. Paul, even though this can be a good thing, but rather that we hearken to his call “imitate me as I imitate Christ…” in a culture that is so much like his own in both its power and decadence that it can your breath away. We truly do not need more students of St. Paul, surely the market has been saturated with words beyond number and papers beyond comprehension. What this poor, tired, broken world needs, are more St. Pauls, people to speak and live the unchanging Gospel, people of holiness and strength, people who have found in Jesus the source of their life and hope and choose to live radically grace filled lives for the sake of their own, and the world’s, salvation. If nothing else comes from this moment we are sharing, understand this, and as you begin to grasp its implications you’ll both begin to understand the Orthodox vision of St. Paul and, perhaps, be changed yourself, forever.

Thank you for your time and your willingness to listen. If you have questions I will try to answer them as I can

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