37 - Pentecost, June 12, 2011

Acts 2:1-11

John 7:37-52; 8:12

An ancient Christian sermon from the end of the first century has come down to us under the name of St Clement, bishop of Rome. St Clement says: “Brothers, if we do the will of God our Father, we will be of the first Church, the spiritual church, which was created before the sun and the moon.”

Searching the scriptures to find this spiritual church that was created before sun and moon takes one to the first thing that God created in the beginning. It is the “light” of creation that God created on the First Day when He said: “Let there be light, and there was light.”[2]

St Clement gives us more clues about this spiritual church that was created before sun and moon. “The Church, being spiritual, was revealed in the flesh of Christ…for this flesh is a copy [antitype – an impression left by a seal] of the Spirit….We say that the flesh is the church and the Spirit is Christ.” St Clement goes on to say that this spiritual church that is the flesh is the female, and Christ is the male. The Church that St Clement is talking about, then, is the Bride of Christ as St Paul the apostle describes her.[3]

In the liturgical and sacramental context of the Holy Orthodox Church, one cannot help but wonder what the connection might be of this church that St Clement speaks of with the Theotokos. Of her, the Church sings on the feast of her entrance into the temple, “Three years old in the flesh, but many years old in the spirit, more spacious than the heavens and higher than the powers above, let the Bride of God be praised in song;”[4] and St Simeon, when he takes her into his arms, says: “Strange (or paradoxical) – i.e., not able to be fitted into the rational logic of human reasoning – is the manner of your birth, strange is the manner of your growing, strange and most marvelous are all things concerning thee, O Bride of God, and they are beyond the telling of mortal man!”[5]

But this mystery of the Church in its relation to the mystery of the Theotokos I have not the wisdom to explore and so I do no more here than to make note of it. My purpose in noting it is simply to excite your sense of the majesty and holiness of the blessed Panagia, Mother of our God, and of the Church into whose mystical and divine life and light you were baptized; so that you will begin to appreciate that the Holy Orthodox Church is in no way something ordinary or mundane, but heavenly, spiritual, a mystery that our minds cannot grasp and that makes even the most eloquent of orators dumb as fish.

This Church that St Clement is setting before us looks to me like the logos, the principle, the hidden essence of the world. By the physical creation, we mean the whole of creation both visible and invisible, in the fleshly, corporeal or bodily aspect of creation, the visible, and in the mental, psychological or spiritual aspect, the invisible. The creation in its inner essence, then, in the principle of its being, is, as St Clement says, “a copy of the Spirit.” That is to say, the creation is, as it were, stamped by the Spirit; it is, in its inner essence the impression left in soft wax by the seal of the King’s stamp. This means that the creation is both an image of the Spirit, she looks like the Spirit somehow, and also that the creation is by its very nature able to receive the Spirit and to become one with the Spirit; that the Spirit “fits” into the creation like the seal of the stamp that fits perfectly in the impression it has left on the soft wax, like a hand in a perfectly fitted glove. This means that the creation in both body and soul, as both visible and invisible, is inherently spiritual. Spiritual in the biblical vision does not refer only to what is ethereal or invisible. The flesh can be spiritual because it is able by its churchly principle, the inner essence of its nature to receive the Spirit of God and to become, as it were, soaking wet with the Spirit like a sponge that comes alive when it is dipped into the water.

If the Church is the first thing God created, or the inner essence of the world, as St Clement seems to be saying, then the Church has been from the beginning. And so, it is not proper to say that the Church was born on Pentecost; for, she is the spiritual light of the world that was created before sun and moon. She is the inner principle of an innate capacity for receiving God in which the world was brought into being. In the spiritual light of the Church, the plants began to grow on the third day, and the sun and moon on the fourth day began their movements. This means that the world came into being and came to life in the Church, in this principle of a capacity for God, an innate, natural ability to receive God and to become one with God. And man, made as male and female in the Image of God, means that he was made in the image of Christ in a natural, inherent capacity for receiving God and becoming one with God, and in becoming one with God, of becoming spiritual, holy, sanctified, deified.[6]

St Clement speaks to us of the spiritual Church that is the female to Christ who is the male. In the writings left by a saintly and beloved Athonite monk, the Elder Porphyrios (+ 1991), we read, I believe, of the Church that is before even this Church of which St Clement speaks, the Church that is Christ, the “male”, the Church that is the Spirit of which the Church that St Clement speaks of is the copy. This is what the Elder Porphyrios says, I believe under the inspiration of the same Spirit that inspired St Clement: “The Church is without beginning, without end and eternal, just as the Triune God, her founder, is without beginning, without end and eternal. She is uncreated just as God is uncreated. She existed before the ages, before the angels, before the creation of the world – before the foundation of the world as the Apostle Paul says.[7] She is a divine institution and in her dwells the whole fullness of divinity.[8] She is an expression of the richly varied wisdom of God. She is the mystery of mysteries. She was concealed and was revealed in the last of times. The three persons of the Holy Trinity constitute the eternal Church. The love of God created us in His image and likeness. He embraced us within the Church in spite of the fact that He knew of our apostasy. He gave us everything to make us gods too through the free gift of grace.”[9]

There is too much in these writings that I have shared with you this morning for us to talk about here. So, let’s draw just one or two conclusions that may serve to gladden our hearts as we take them home with us and contemplate them further on our own, in the fear of God and with faith and love.

Joining the thought of St Clement of the late 1st century, who seems to be speaking of the Church as female, with the writings of the Elder Porphyrios of the 20th century, who seems to be speaking to us of the Church as Christ the male, we see the Church in her fullness as the union of God and man, of heaven and earth, of the uncreated Light and Glory of God with the created light and glory of creation. In the Light of the Church, the Incarnation of Christ comes to be and man and the world are united with God. In the Holy Resurrection and Glorious Ascension of Christ, man and the world are glorified and made beautiful, they are made “good” as they were in the beginning. And on this the Glorious Feast of Pentecost, the Holy Spirit descends on the holy disciples of Christ, on those who left everything to follow Christ, and they are deified, divinized, sanctified. They become spiritual; they become sponges made wet and full because they are soaked in the living waters of the Holy Spirit that fall down on them. In these sacred mysteries of Christ – the Incarnation, the Resurrection and Ascension, and Holy Pentecost – the Church is not “born”. She is revealed. She who is from the beginning is made manifest, and those who love Christ, her Son and her God, are taken up into her in the Resurrection and Ascension of Christ and are transfigured into children of God born of the Spirit from above.

But I think we can say one more thing about this Church that revealed herself when she descended from Heaven and embraced the disciples of Christ on the Day of Pentecost. God is Spirit, say the Scriptures; and they say that God is Love. The Spirit that is the Spirit of the uncreated Church and of which the Church that was created in the beginning is a copy, is the Love of God, the very love that the human soul thirsts for, the love of God and of the Theotokos that is life – not biological life, but the life of God that is the light of men, the life of God that is the love of God, the life that is of such power that it has conquered death by the death of Christ on the Cross, a death that manifested Christ’s great love for the world.

Beloved faithful, receive the teachings, the doctrines, the holy commandments of the Church, and receive the love of God. Beloved faithful, walk in the way of Christ’s holy commandments, and walk in the love of God that gives us life even to the point of making our death into the death of death and the bridge by which we pass over into Paradise in the grace of Our Lord Jesus Christ, the love of God the Father and the communion of the Holy Spirit. Amen.

[1] 2 Clement §14

[2] Gn 1:3

[3] E.g., Eph 5:21-33

[4] Festal Menaion, p. 178

[5] Festal Menaion, p. 182

[6] Col 1:15

[7] Eph 1:4

[8] Col 2:9

[9] Wounded by Love, p. 87