Tuesday, October 1, 2013

My Discovery of the Early Church ... Alive Today!

Some reasons why we are Orthodox, testimonies of various parishioners. The following is by Pavel Holder.

Almighty God has always demonstrated that history is important; in fact, His entire written word is based upon the timeline of Jesus’ entry into human history and the ancient prophecies that had announced His coming. Even to the casual outside observer, it is obvious that the God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob endorsed the development and recording of human history throughout the Bible, in book after book, inspiring its writers to record even the most minute of details. The Bible is obviously a ‘history’ book and God uses history in time and on earth to fulfill His purposes!

Martin Luther and the start of the Protestant Reformation
So, why did I ignore history? Why did I dismiss the early Church as though history ended with the last apostle’s letter in the Bible? Did God Himself stop working in history after His Son died on the cross and rose again? How could I ignore the solid evidence of even secular writers during the early Church period recording early worship and practices? These questions and more helped initiate my personal journey from Pentecostalism and the Protestant world, to the absolute, undeniably historical truth of Orthodoxy.
These questions, and more, began to disturb me as I read early Christian documents, only to find out that the early Church was definitely a different entity than I had thought it was- and very little matched contemporary Christianity. I discovered that the first century church was absolutely liturgical in worship & practices, even while the Apostles were alive to correct errors! I had always been taught through out my life that the Holy Spirit had left the earth after the last Apostle died and had come down again on Martin Luther who revived the ‘real’ church, yet I began to discover that the Church was very much alive from 33AD to this very day in Holy Orthodoxy. Even Jesus’ brother, James, wrote a liturgical service which is still used, and hundreds of other practices established in the 1st century are carried out by men, women and children around the world today who claim ‘right belief/right worship’ or ‘ortho-doxy.

For example, the early Church saw its existence as a specific entity, not something that was nebulous in membership. There was no idea of various denominations with differing beliefs and practices; just because a person thought he was a Christian, did not make it necessarily true. A person either IN the Church or OUT of it depending on what you believed, and clearly defined councils endorsed specific beliefs or anathematized them. The idea of 40,000 ‘Christian’ denominations would be unthinkable to the early Christians who proclaim “one holy, Catholic and apostolic church’. They knew only a specific set of beliefs and practices, defined and established while the Apostles were still alive! How could history ignore those and change or update the Church? How could beliefs be so nebulous as to be opposing in various denominations yet still proclaim that the Holy Spirit had led the way for each?
I became disturbed that contemporary Christians ignore and even demean the role of Mary, Jesus’ mother. I discovered that the early Church revered the Virgin Mary, calling her Theotokos, the Mother of God, from very early history. They believed that she was ever virgin, and the Apostles reinforced that understanding. Yet, even I have witnessed a disrespect of Mary to the point that contemporaries would be horrified to call her ‘blessed’. No modern man or woman would stand for anyone making derogatory remarks about a mother, yet the overall disrespect for the Virgin Mary is rampant in modern Christianity.

Catacomb art of the Last Supper
As a Protestant I rejected the belief that Holy Communion could possibly be the actual body and blood of our Lord Jesus Christ, yet it is absolutely clear from early documents and from Jesus’ words themselves that He gave the Church His very real body and blood in the cup of communion. It is even clear from ancient secular documents that Christians were accused of being cannibals! There was a clear belief even outside the Church that Christians believed they were eating the flesh and blood of their Savior! The grape juice and cracker ‘memorial’ I celebrated as a Protestant was totally opposite of the understanding of early Christians. History forced me to change my thinking.

Why had obvious, documented history been ignored? Were the early Christians deceived? Had the Apostles failed in their teaching? Had ‘the gates of Hell’ prevailed against the Church, though Jesus said they would not? Had the Holy Spirit been so weak as to be unable to guide the Church? Jesus Himself had told us that the “Holy Spirit will lead you to all truth”. Was Jesus a liar? If there was one truth and one Holy Spirit, how could He guide 40,000 denominations, each believing and practicing something different? Was Christianity something like an amoeba, or was it a definite, observable, definable entity throughout the world? It was impossible for me to conceive that Jesus had even told us in the Bible: “my body is real food, and my blood is real drink” and “unless you eat my flesh and drink my blood, you have no life in you”. How could I practice communion as though it meant very little, nothing more than a “here’s to you Jesus” memorial with some grape juice and a cracker? If it really were His body and blood, wouldn’t worship, doctrine and practice uphold that belief?

My conclusion: either there WAS a Church whose practice was unbroken since the beginning and which Jesus had set up, or Christianity was nothing but a free-for-all, incorporating any belief in direct opposition to others with no real consequences. Did it matter in history how God wanted to be worshipped? History, both secular and religious, could not be ignored. I concluded that there had to be an historical Church, worshiping the same way since Jesus’ death whose members believed together the same things since his death as well, or “Jesus the same yesterday, today and forever” was a myth. If there were such a church, it would also be worldwide, established everywhere the Apostles traveled.

Christ Enthroned, from a 6th century cave church
The only Christian Church with the historical record establishing it immediately after Jesus’ death, worshiping the same way, unchangeable in essence and not ‘modernized’, guided by the same Holy Spirit, and endorsed throughout time and the world by a consistent message could only be The Holy Orthodox Church. There is no other Church, which has not been ‘updated and modernized’ or changed in existence other than Holy Orthodoxy. I became convinced that here is no other church, which can demonstrate by documented historical records that doctrine, and practice is not a ‘pick-and-choose-what-you-like’ existence. Either Jesus and His Holy Spirit were able to establish, endorse and keep the Church throughout time, utilizing the holy Apostles and their followers, or this is not a work of God Himself, omnipotent and glorious, unto ages of ages. Denominations could not just invent themselves and their practices hundreds of years after Jesus’ death and be part of the historic church.

The more I discovered about the ancient Christian Church, the more I saw that its beliefs and practices were being ignored and de-emphasized as unimportant by contemporary Christianity, though it was obvious even to me that God’s purposes are worked out in and through a consistent message throughout history. The Church calendar year repeating in minute detail the life of Christ and His saints, the early councils, infant baptism, regular fasting periods, Church hierarchy, asceticism and so many more doctrines and practices I researched in the ancient Church were alive and well in contemporary Orthodoxy. I had no other choice than to follow the ancient Christians from 33AD to this very day, and at the end of the historical line, up to date and up to the minute, I discovered the Holy Orthodox Church. Begun by Jesus, carried on by the Apostles, and unbroken to this very day, I had finally discovered “the pearl of great price” for my life.