St. Seraphim of Sarov Orthodox Church
Attacks on the Church

Acts 6:1-7

Last week we noted that while the Gospels chronicle the work of God the Son incarnate in the world, the book of the Acts of the Apostles chronicles the work of the Holy Spirit in the world.  In reading the book of the Acts we see the history of the birth and formation of the Church, the Body of Christ, which is the instrument of the work of the Holy Spirit.  Just as the evil one opposed the God/man Jesus Christ while He was in the world, so now, in the book of the Acts we see that he continues to oppose the Church.  Last week we heard how the apostles were imprisoned and beaten for preaching the Gospel and in this we see the attack of the evil one upon the Church from the outside.  These attacks would continue to escalate even to produce the first martyrs.  And they did not stop there but continue even to this day as wave upon wave of martyrs grace the Church as the uncounted stars grace the night sky.

Today, however, we hear of a different attack by the evil one – the attack from the inside of the Church.  This internal attack also occurred in the Gospel for Judas Iscariot was one of the twelve apostles, those most trusted by Christ and yet he was tempted by his greed and ambition to betray Christ.  Although the Church was (and is) marked by the mutual love and care for one another of all the members, because we are all sinners and continue to struggle with our fallen passions, it was inevitable that the evil one would find a weakness that he could exploit in the members of the Church.  That weakness was found even in the heart of the mutual love for one another.  Within the Church there were believers from all over the empire. There were settlements of Jews throughout the empire and those who were not born within the historic borders of Judea were called Hellenic Jews (referred to in this account as “Greeks”), while those who had lived their whole lives in Judea were called “Hebrews”.  There was a cultural tension between these two classes of Jews that continued to affect them when they believed in Christ and were brought into the Church.  While the brotherly love of the believers overshadowed this tension, it was an element that the evil one could exploit – and so he did.  The Hellenic  believers, that is “the Greeks”, perceived that they were being neglected in the provision of goods (remember that at this time the Church in Jerusalem “held all things in common” and their resources were administered by the Apostles), especially when it came to those most in need, the widows and orphans.  Whether or not there was any truth to this perception is hard to know, however, the fathers do say that if indeed this neglect was real, it was completely unintentional.   Whatever the case this perception was used by the evil one as a wedge to create discord among the members of the Church seeking to weaken and destroy it from the inside.

Here now is the place in which we find the Church, even in its very infancy, faced with the threat of internal discord.  But it was the wisdom of the Holy Spirit, expressed through the Apostles which brought about a resolution that not only set aside the problem, but which served to enrich the Church.  In order to correct this situation, the Apostles appointed seven deacons who were to see to the administration of the resources of the Church.  If we look carefully at the names of these seven deacons, it is apparent that most, if not all, were from among the Hellenic believers, one was even a proselyte (a gentile who had become a Jew).  As a result of this solution, the office of the diaconate was established and even today in the liturgy we see symbolically how the deacon comes out of the altar and joins the people, collecting their petitions and with one voice in the litany presents them to God.  This comes directly from these apostolic times where the deacons would go among the people, seeing their needs and making sure that each one had sufficient resources.

It is not just the mere fact of the establishment of the order of deacons that is important here, but it is also good to look at the process.  As we look at how this issue was addressed we see how it was that the Church functioned (and indeed how it should continue to function.)  First we see that the apostles spoke and acted as one.  There is not one apostle who takes precedence over the others or who speaks for all – rather we are told that “the twelve” spoke to the people together.  They acted in complete harmony with one another, no one daring to act on his own, rather each one seeking the concordance of all the others.  This harmony is the model for all of us in the Church – we should always strive to act in unity with one another, sharing our labors and in humility submitting to one another. 

This harmony of action did not stop with the apostles, for even after they conferred together and were led by the Holy Spirit to a plan of action, they did not act unilaterally, as rulers or as authoritarians.  Instead they laid their plan before the people to set aside these deacons to see to the administration of the resources of the Church so that the people might approve of it.  Then the apostles also placed the responsibility for naming the people to be given this responsibility to the whole assembly (“choose from among yourselves seven brethren of honest report, full of the Holy Spirit and wisdom…”) The apostles not only acted in harmony with one another, but they also included the whole of the Church in their actions.  If we expect the priest or the bishop to “run the show” for us without our participation, then we are mistaken, for this same principle of harmony and acting in unity applies even today.  The whole assembly of the believers that is each one of you in the parish are expected to participate in the care and welfare of the Church. 

This was not however a “democracy” where everyone had equal say and the majority ruled.  The apostles had been given the responsibility by God as shepherds to care for the flock and they in turn sought to empower and ennoble the believers by their involvement in their own care.  But in the end, the assembly presented seven candidates to the apostles and it was the apostles alone who prayed and laid their hands upon them, ordaining them to this holy office.  And so we see the necessity not only of acting in unity, but also of good order according to the grace of God in the Church.  It is not that every person seeks to assert himself in the matters of the Church and to convince everyone else to adopt his ideas.  No, rather we offer what we have and then submit to one another and to the authority of Christ   At the Last Supper, Our Lord washed the feast of the disciples teaching them: “If I then, your Lord and Master, have washed your feet; ye also ought to wash one another’s feet.  For I have given you an example, that you should do as I have done to you.” and “he that is greatest among you, let him be … as he that doth serve.” This is how the apostles acted and how they taught the believers of the whole Church to act.  This is how they are teaching us, even now, to act.  It is this humility and mutual submission that is the heart of the Church’s ability to fend off the attacks of the evil one.

The evil one is seeking now as always to destroy the Church and to deceive even those of us who believe that we might deny Christ as did Judas.  He will attack us from without causing us to be ashamed of our belief or out of fear to hide our belief.  He will attack us from within, finding the smallest weakness to exploit and enflaming our own passions as weapons against us, seeking to destroy and weaken the Church.  We, however, can easily overcome these attacks by imitating the apostles.  When attacked from without, they saw their sufferings not as something to grudgingly endure as the price of their faith, but as having been given the honor and privilege of suffering along with Christ and sharing in His Cross.  When attacked from within the apostles acted with humility, submitting to one another and maintaining always the harmony and unity of their common life in Christ.  We too, when faced with these attacks, can overcome them by adopting the same attitudes, rejoicing in the honor of sharing in the Cross of Christ on one hand and on the other maintain an attitude of humility and mutual submission, preserving the harmony and unity of our common life in Christ.  In this way we will negate and nullify the attacks of the evil one and gain the victory of Christ for ourselves.

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