VISION, WORK, & BELIEF
This week’s Mid-week Reflection is provided to us from Archdeacon David’s excellent homily from this past Sunday. Enjoy!
In the name of the Father, and the Son, and the Holy Spirit, amen.
In preparing for this morning’s sermon I took a look at the liturgical calendar of the church to see what the readings were, and who or what we were commemorating today. I saw that today is the Afterfeast of the Dormition of the Most Holy Lady the Theotokos and Ever Virgin Mary. It is also the 9th Sunday after Pentecost, as the church measures those things, and the 9th Sunday of Matthew, referring to the evangelist whose Gospel you just heard.
For me, however, and I am sure for many of you, today is also, and still, the third Sunday after the convention.
I say that jokingly but I do believe that in the future in this parish we will remember what happened in the past, by whether it occurred before or after the convention. In other words, some day years from now, we will try to remember when something happened and when we struggle to remember, we’ll ask, was that before or after the convention? I think the convention was that significant of a watershed event for us. I hope it was.
I think it was a watershed event for us because I doubt that we were the same parish before the convention that we are now, afterwards. That is at least true in the eyes of many outside this parish who visited here for the first time from around the Archdiocese and whose image of us, if they had one, was changed as a result. It is also true of those who work in downtown Grand Rapids, who most likely did not know us before, but then we were hard to miss for a week. The result is that in the Archdiocese and in our community, no one should be able to call the Orthodox of Grand Rapids a well-kept secret, any more.
I hope it was a watershed event for us, because we should be anything but a well kept secret. With our light no longer under a bushel, however, we bear an even greater responsibility to be sure of who we are, and why we are here. This is a big and serious responsibility, but after all, after what we did at the convention, we all should have a sharper sense of what is possible, through Christ who strengthens us.
We should have this sense because the convention was a big and serious responsibility. Although it is over now for the most part and was in all probability a one time event for most of us, still I hope we learned some lessons from it that we can apply going forward, as we prepare for whatever else the future might hold.
To me, at least, three things stand out as being essential elements of how we were able to meet our significant convention responsibilities. Not coincidentally, they are three things that have been essential elements of the life of the Church for 2000 years and will continue to be. These three things are vision; work; and belief—not simple belief that something can be achieved, that is something that can be believed in any context and does not necessarily, actually predict the outcome of the undertaking at hand—but rather a belief specifically in some one, and in some thing. It is that kind of belief—belief in Christ and His Church—that ultimately gives real meaning to the vision and to the work.
But the first thing I noticed about the convention, had to do with vision. I think I learned something about vision, watching people plan the convention and its events. Early on I saw examples of people seeing into the future and seeing things there I admit I did not see.
But still I don’t think I fully understood what vision consisted of, what the word really means in a tangible way, until I watched people do the actual convention planning. You see I always thought vision meant the same as goals, or your objectives, or plans, even. Vision is related to those things, but it’s different, and it’s a little more mysterious, maybe even inspired.
What I noticed when I watched people who were responsible for something at the convention being asked about their event is that they would begin to describe it and they would start looking up—and as they were looking up they would talk about what was going to happen there, and I realized that they were looking up because they actually saw the event unfold in their head, they were watching it in their head or in their mind’s eye, because they actually saw it there. Similarly, some planners when they were asked about an event would simply gesture like I got this, and not say much about it although you knew they had prepared, and for them I think they could not describe things because the vision in their head was so vivid, so clear and lucid that they could not adequately describe it in words. It would not do it justice. You had to see it.
And so I realized then vision is not just a stated goal or an objective. It’s actually seeing something, before it’s really there.
Now vision can come in many different ways, in different contexts, not just in the church. And sharing a vision is another matter, more related to work, which we will get to. But the church, especially the early church never lacked vision, or else it would have perished. The importance of vision is strongly implied in today’s epistle reading. St. Paul writes to the church at Corinth which he began, and says he just laid the foundation, that others will build on, and that God will increase. St. Paul does not say he’s finished the work at the church, it really is only just beginning and he knows that and expresses the importance of building for a future.
Does St. Paul know this and do it because Jesus told him to? St. Paul did not know Jesus before the crucifixion and resurrection, but after that as we know from the Book of Acts he had a vision of Jesus on the road to Damascus, a vision so powerful it blinded him for three days, until a man named Ananias went to lay hands on him on the Street called Straight, because he, Ananias, had a vision of Jesus in which he was told to go there, where he would find St. Paul.
The Book of Acts is full of visions. Yet nowhere in the Book of Acts does it mention the Apostles’ lists of goals or strategic plans. Not to knock them, but they are no substitute for an inspired vision, which you actually see, not for the apostles, and not for us.
In the convention process I think I saw people see inspired visions, and that this made a difference. So we need to ask, in the future, what is the vision? Do you see it? Tell me about it, if you can, but tell me at least that you have it, that you see it, and when you see it, you look up.
The second element is work. Today’s epistle is all about work. It is part of St. Paul’s message to the church at Corinth about communion with God and with each other. This communion is not a coincidence, but takes work. Working with each other, and working with God, cooperating with him to do his will. Some plant, some water, but somehow they do so as one. They are fellow workers, God’s fellow workers even, each one building on it, building God’s field, God’s building, the temple of God which as St. Paul tells those he writes to “you are,” the plural you, meaning all of them who constitute the church, each one working in unity with the other and with God.
So teamwork, to use a modern phrase, has always been part of the Christian experience, and so it was part of our experience with the convention, too. And once again for my part I think I learned something new about the importance of such work. You have to work hard. You have to work hard together. And—and this is what I think I learned—you have to do the hard work, that is necessary to work together. In other words, there is work, there is working with others, and then there is the work of working with others.
This work of working with others and all that is involved in it, when it is done in the name of Christ and his Church, and when we overcome ourselves in the process, is a form of communion, as St. Paul suggests. It is true fellowship with your fellow worker in the church. It is knitting together the Body of Christ, in a way a thousand coffee hours cannot duplicate. As St. Paul seems to be telling the Corinthians, working together makes us the Church, the one body of Christ.
And so in the future, we need to make sure we do the work that is involved in working together, as more than just another team, but even as the Church.
Finally there is that something else that truly makes us the Church and brings us into communion with each other and with Christ. That is the third element, belief. Belief is the element that affirms that our vision and our work are done in and through the Church. Here I am speaking of belief not as confidence in your own ability to achieve your vision through your own work, but rather as confidence in our salvation through our merciful Lord and his Church. This definition of belief was highlighted for me in the convention process by something I heard Metropolitan Joseph say, repeatedly. You may have noticed that whenever His eminence referred to us, instead of saying the church or the Orthodox or Christians, or the faithful, he called us, the believers.
I don’t know why he chose that term. I do know it was often used during a time of trial, historically, behind the Iron Curtain, for example, when it may not have been obvious if someone was a member of the Church, or maybe they were in secret. It was an expression of faith. If it applied to you, with one word, it described an entire Gospel. So we are, and must be, the believers.
What do we believe? In a few minutes we will profess as individuals but together what we believe in a way Christians have done for centuries. When we do so, notice that we do not expressly say that we just believe certain things exist. Rather, what we will say directly, is that we believe in the Father, and we believe in the Son, and we believe in the Holy Spirit, in the same way you would say you believe in someone meaning you trust them, you rely on them, you can count on them, you have faith in them. We are not the believers who just believe that something exists beyond ourselves. We are the believers, who believe in the Most Holy Trinity.
And we believe in something else, because there is a fourth “believe in” in the Creed, the last one, and that is that we believe in the One, Holy, Catholic and Apostolic Church. We put our trust and our reliance and our faith, in the Church.
This belief that we profess is also described in a singular way in today’s Gospel, where we find Jesus alone on the mountain after his miracle of the loaves and fishes. He is watchful of the boat the disciples were in, out in the middle of the sea, tossed by the waves, for the wind was contrary. Note that he is with them, even when they do not see him. Into that storm Jesus comes to the boat, walking on the water, which frightens the already worried disciples, who cry out in fear. In that storm tossed boat Jesus tells them to be of good cheer, and take heart, and to not be afraid.
Peter then asks if he can come to Jesus, on the water. Jesus tells him to come, and for a time Peter too walks on the water, focused on Christ, until distracted, he once again notices the winds that blew heavy on that day. Becoming afraid, only then he begins to sink. Sinking, he cries, “Lord, save me.” Jesus catches him, and asks him why he doubted, why he wavered, why he had such little faith, and scoops him back into the boat. Once on the boat, the wind ceased. Then, for the first time recorded in the Gospels, the disciples confess that Jesus is truly the Son of God, and they worship Him.
At that point, the disciples were what we might call, the believers.
They might, as we will, waver from time to time in that belief. But as the believers, we all hear Jesus calling us to be of good cheer, to take heart, and not be afraid, and when we notice the storm and begin to sink, and He picks us up as He is always there to do in the midst of every storm, and we hear Him ask of us as he asks Peter, o ye of little faith, why did you doubt?, we remember that it is in the boat with the other disciples that He places us, and where the waters are calm.
That boat in today’s Gospel is the Church, the ark of our salvation, the vineyard we all work in which God has planted and where the fruit of our labor is joy itself, the Church that provides us with a vision of a kingdom to come we see even now. This is the Church we believe in, the Church we work to build, the Church who we are, the Church that is the real reason we did all this work this summer to realize a particular vision, that now leaves its legacy with us forever.
Through the grace of Our Lord Jesus Christ, and through the intercessions of His Holy Mother the Afterfeast of whose Dormition we do celebrate today, may we always work to keep that Church pure, and intact, and faithful, and holy, and build on it, as others did before us, and as others will do until the end of time, for be of good cheer, and do not be afraid, for we can do all things through Christ, who strengthens us, in the name of the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit.