39 Call of the Saints - June 10, 2007

Romans 2:10 – 16

Matthew 4:18 – 23


It is commonly assumed that Pentecost is the birthday of the Church. But there is an older and deeper understanding of the Church’s origin. Among the writings known as the Apostolic Fathers is an ancient Christian sermon that goes under the name of 2 Clement. It was preached by an unknown priest sometime between 98 and 170 AD. In his sermon, the unknown preacher speaks of the “first church, the spiritual one, which was created before sun and moon.” He mentions certain books that declare along with the apostles, that “the church not only exists now, but has been in existence from the beginning. For, she was spiritual, as was also our Lord Jesus. She was revealed in the last days in order that she might save us. Now the church, being spiritual,” he goes on to say, “was revealed in the flesh of Christ, thereby showing us that if any of us guard her in the flesh and do not corrupt her, we will receive her back again in the Holy Spirit. For this flesh is the imprinted seal [antitupoV] of the Holy Spirit.”[1]

According to this ancient doctrine of the Church, you could say that Pentecost is the birth not of the Church but of the disciples into the Church. Let’s put ourselves as best we can into the mind of this early Christian doctrine, and in its light, look for the spiritual meaning of this morning’s Gospel.

The Church is the body of Christ, writes St Paul in his letter to the Ephesians.[2] That means that the Church looks like Christ. Her hierarchical structure, her doctrines, her icons, her prayers, her liturgical worship, all faithfully delineate the contours of Christ’s body, just as the garments we wear delineate the contours of our body. This means that the orthodox Church is that Church whose structure, doctrines and worship truly look like Christ; so that when you study that Church, you are looking directly at the body of Christ. If the structure, doctrines and worship do not look like Christ, you are not looking at the Church and you are not looking at the body of Christ revealed in these last days, of whom the Scriptures bear witness; you are looking at some image of Christ concocted by the wisdom of human opinion. If you study those false doctrines you are not looking at Christ but at some humanly contrived image of Christ.

Our unknown preacher says that the Church is spiritual, and that she was revealed in the flesh of Christ. This is as much as to say that everything in the Church is of the Spirit. Her doctrines are spiritual because they set forth the mind of Christ; her prayers are spiritual because they set forth the soul of Christ; and her sacraments are spiritual – her oil, her water, her bread, her wine –because they set forth the body of Christ. In the Spirit, everything in the Church opens onto Christ; and, in Christ, everything in the Church opens onto the Spirit.

This is important to understand for those who wish truly to know the Christ to which the Scriptures bear witness; and, it reveals to us what it means to have been baptized into the Church that is the body of Christ. Baptism is our Pentecost, when the Spirit descended on us and raised us up into the Church.

The Church, says our unknown preacher, existed from the beginning, before sun and moon. This takes us to the very beginning of the bible, to the book of Genesis. There we read about the Spirit of God who in the beginning was brooding over the face of the waters when darkness covered the face of the deep. Then God gave his first commandment, “Let there be light.” And there was light.

Here is God’s first creation. It came to be before sun and moon, which were not created until the fourth day. I think we can take it that this primordial light in which God creates the world and fashions man in his own image and likeness is the Church – the Bride of God, as the Scriptures call her – to which our unknown preacher refers.

But now we read the Genesis account of creation in a new mind; you might say an ‘enlightened’ mind because the Church is teaching us to see the primordial light of creation as the Church, the body of Christ. “In thy light shall we see light,” the Psalmist says. In the primordial light of the Church, we see the uncreated Light of God. In the primordial light of the Church, God proceeds to create the world. First, he divides the waters from the waters – an image of our baptism, perhaps, and an image of his calling Peter and Andrew, James and John in this morning’s Gospel, when he calls them (and us) away from the Sea of Galilee, away from the dark waters of this life surging with the storm of temptations as the funeral texts say, and into the living waters of his Holy Spirit. Now we begin to see the Lord’s creative work, when he causes the earth to spring forth vegetation, plants yielding seed, and fruit trees bearing fruit after their kind, as an icon of what he does in those who have been baptized. He causes the virtues of his Holy Spirit to spring up from the ground of their soul just as he causes the earth to spring forth vegetation and plants. We know that plants need light to grow. Here, they are growing before the sun and moon have been created. They are growing in the light of this primordial light that was the first thing that God created. The virtues of God need light to grow in us. In the Church, they grow in the primordial light that is the body of Christ, which is spiritual because it is made incarnate – it is revealed in these last days, as our unknown preacher says – of the Holy Spirit and the Virgin Mary. The Church is the primordial light of creation in which we and the whole world come to be and in which we see the uncreated Light of God, the light that is the life of the world, as St John tells us in the opening verses of his Gospel. The Church, then, is the Mother of the world. She is the true Eve – the Mother of all living.

Perhaps, then, it is of the Church that we are reading in Proverbs:

The Lord created me at the beginning of his way, before his works of old. From the beginning, from the earliest times of the earth, when there were no depths I was brought forth, before the mountains were settled, before the hills I was brought forth.  When he established the heavens I was there, when he marked out the foundations of the earth, I was daily his delight, rejoicing always before him, rejoicing in the world, his earth, and having my delight in the sons of men.[3] 

Note that God creates the primordial light and the world by his Word from out of nothing; and that he makes Adam and Eve in his image and likeness by his Word, by speaking: “Let us make man,” he says. By his Word: this is as much as to say that he “calls” the world into being; he “calls” Adam and Eve to life from out of nothing. The Greek word for Church is ekklhsia. This is a noun formed from the verb “to call.” Ekklhsia is a feminine noun. It can therefore be translated as “She who is called.” Considering all that we have just seen from the biblical and patristic indications of Holy Tradition, we could translate ekklhsia as: “She who is called into being from nothing to be the Bride of God.” This takes us to Gen 2:24: “And the two shall be one flesh.” This refers to the union of man and woman in the sacrament, the sacred union of marriage. St Paul as well as our unknown preacher (in a passage I did not cite) see the union of man and woman in holy matrimony as an icon of the union of God with the Church, his bride, becoming in his incarnation one flesh with her. And this union of Christ and the Church is given as the primordial spiritual reality, the ontological root, of the world. The first commandment of God, “Let there be light” therefore opens onto a spiritual interpretation: “Let there be the Church, the Bride of God and the Mother of all living, that the creation might be prepared for the Incarnation of God the Word, the union of God and man in the sacred mystery of his Incarnation, death and resurrection and holy Ascension, the marriage of God and the world when the two shall be made one flesh and creation will be made able to fulfill its natural destiny to become – to be called into being as – partakers of the divine nature.[4]

In this light, we turn to this morning’s Gospel with eyes that before were blind, as it were, but now have been opened by the touch of God’s hand – the teaching of his holy Church, his body – to see what they could not see before. St Matthew says that Jesus was walking beside the Sea of Galilee. He saw Simon and Peter casting their nets into the sea. And he said: “Come and follow me and I will make you fishers of men.”

Everything in the Church is of the Spirit. The Scriptures, so the holy fathers tell us – quite sternly at that – are not to be read literally but spiritually, for they are opening us onto the Holy Spirit. Reading this Gospel in its Pentecostal setting we see it immediately as an icon of Gen 1:1-3. As I said a moment ago, the Sea of Galilee is an icon of the sea of this worldly life. In our funeral texts we call this life a sea surging with the storm of temptations. In other words, this life is a sea of death and corruption. Jesus is walking beside the sea. It calls to mind the opening words of Genesis, when the Spirit of God is hovering over (beside) the sea, waiting for the Father to send forth his Word in order to call the world into being. Jesus sees Peter and Andrew. Can you not hear an echo of Genesis 1? And God saw what he had made, and behold it was very good. But here, God is looking on children of Adam and Eve who have fallen back into the dark waters of the deep. They are casting their nets into the dark sea of life as though their nets are the cry of their heart calling out from the depths: “Lord, hear me when I cry out to Thee.” Jesus is the Word of God whom the Father has sent forth from his lips down into the deep, dark sea of death looking for the children of Adam and Eve, who were themselves born of his bride, the Church. Behind this Gospel scene of Jesus walking by the sea and beholding Peter and Andrew, then, one sees God coming into the Garden of Eden, looking for Adam and Eve as though he can’t see them, because in their transgression they have fallen back into the darkness and have been covered over by the waters of the deep, and he is calling out: “Adam, where are you?” Now, in these last days, the Word of God has taken flesh; his spiritual body, the Church, has been revealed, made visible so that the eyes of the world can see with their eyes, and even touch with their hands Him who is the Word of Life. He has become like Jonah who has descended into the belly of the whale looking for the children of Adam and Eve – his children, born in the beginning of his Bride, the Church.

He sees Peter and Andrew, James and John. He calls them out. They leave everything to follow him.

In the light of the Church, you can see that this is no ordinary man walking by the sea, and his is no ordinary call. He is the Word of God in whom all things came to be. His calling of Peter and Andrew, James and John is not unlike what he did on the second day of creation, when he divided the waters from the waters – the waters of life, you could say, from the waters of death, the waters of his Holy Spirit that he calls day from the waters of the darkness that he calls night. You can see Peter and Andrew, James and John leaving everything to follow him because they know, intuitively in the Spirit, that this is the Word of God answering their cry from the depths. He has become flesh, and he has found them there on the shores of the deep; and he is calling them out of their darkness and into the light of his holy Church, his body, the primordial light of creation, our holy Mother, in whose light we shall see the uncreated Light of God.

Beloved faithful, this call that drew Peter and Andrew, James and John out of the sea and into the Church is the very call that has gone out into all the world through the holy apostles at Pentecost. It is the call that came to you in your baptism. It is the call that drew you out of the sea of life, surging with the storm of temptation, and into the calm haven of Christ’s holy Church, the first Church, the spiritual one, that was created before sun and moon, the Mother of all living, in whose light we shall see Light, the uncreated Light of God.

Let us understand from this “Pentecostal” reading of this morning’s Gospel that in your baptism you were called to much more than an ethic, or a moral code or a set of religious ideas you are required to believe. You have been called into the mystical life of “she who is called into being from nothing,” the Church, the bride of God, whose life is hidden from the eyes of the world but whose roots go all the way back to the primordial beginning when God said, Let there be light and there was light. To follow Christ is to enter the womb of Christ’s holy Church, the bride of God and our holy Mother: “She who is called from nothing into being by the creative command of God’s Word.” To enter the womb of Christ’s holy Church is to walk in the light as he is in the light. That means that when we practice the commandments of Christ, we are doing much than modifying our behavior. We are clothing ourselves with his holy Church, the primordial light of his body, the light with which he clothes himself as with a garment. When we say the prayers of the Church, when we read with reverence and attention the holy Scriptures and the teachings of the holy fathers, we are doing more than reading words. We are turning in our mind and heart to the primordial light of creation that shines from the heavens, the light of the Church that was before sun and moon. When we step into the Church and begin the divine services of the Church, we are stepping into the light. When we make the sign of the cross, when we make our prostrations, when we stand with attention before the holy altar, we are weaving for ourselves a garment of heavenly light with which we can clothe ourselves in body and soul. When we practice the commandments of Christ, we are leaving everything to follow him. We are laying hold of his cross as the fish bites the hook on the fisherman’s line and we are letting him draw us out of this dark sea of life, surging with the storm of temptations, and into the Kingdom of his beloved Son, the Kingdom of Light.

In his Holy Spirit, the Lord is calling out to you with his bride, the Church: in the flesh, we have descended into the waters of the deep to look for you, the lost sheep, to lead you back to the Father. Now, my child, Come! Let him who is thirsty come! Let him drink from the living fountain of the Church the waters of the Father’s Holy Spirit. Let go your love for the things of this life that are passing away, and turn your love toward the eternal things of the Spirit. Become a disciple, a student of God’s Word. Begin calling your mind to pray often, working up to praying without ceasing. Practice the life of the Church as she directs: the life of prayer and asceticism, chastity and charity. This is the life of the Holy Spirit whose seed was planted in the soil of your heart in your baptism. In the light of the Church, open your eyes to see the uncreated light of God. Cultivate in your heart the joy of the Church who rejoices in the world of the Spirit, and in the earth of the Father’s Heavenly Kingdom; she who takes delight in the sons of men – i.e., in all the saints. And, with the saints step up into the inheritance of your birth from above as a child of God, having God as your Father, the Church as your Mother, and all the saints as your brothers and sisters. Amen.

[1] Greek Text and translation by Lightfoot & Harmer, p. 120-121.

[2] Eph 1:23.

[3] Prov 8:22-31

[4] II Pt 1:4