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Three Millennia of Greek Literature

Alexander Schmemann

1. The Beginning of the Church (28 pages)

From Schmemann's A History of the Orthodox Church












Page 2

By His whole life He showed us the type of the perfect man, that is, of a man utterly obedient to God. The authority and power by which He forgave sins, healed the sick, and raised the dead existed only through this love and obedience. In His own Person He revealed the kingdom as complete union with God, as the power of love and sacrifice for God and men. He was delivered up to a shameful death and abandoned by all, yet remained the image incarnate of complete self-surrender, perfect love, and absolute humility. By this surrender of self, love has triumphed over hate, and life has conquered death, for God raised Christ from the dead. The evil of the world and the forces of disintegration that rule it have proved powerless, and in one Man they have been overcome. In one Man the kingdom of God — of love, goodness, and eternal life — has penetrated the realm of sin and death.

Christ did not win this victory for Himself, but for all men — to save them all and lead them into that kingdom which He brought into being. Therefore, at the very outset of His work, He chose twelve witnesses — men who were with Him continually, who heard His teachings and beheld His works, who were to be witnesses of His death, resurrection, and glorification. And when, by way of death on the Cross, He entered upon His glory, He entrusted His kingdom to them, promising that after His glorification He would bestow His power upon them, so that what He alone had done they all might do. With His power they would be able not only to tell men about Him, but also to lead them to Him and make them partakers of His kingdom.

Such was His promise, and on Pentecost it was fulfilled. On that day the little band of disciples received the power to witness, not only to the Master’s life and miracles, but also to the fact that He is the Savior, King, and Lord of the world. For the disciples it is in the Church that His life continues; His dominion and power become realities through their hands, and His life becomes the new life of all who believe in Him. The coming of the Holy Spirit means all of this — out of the little flock it makes the Church.

Pentecost took place in Jerusalem. The apostles were Galileans, inhabitants of the northern part of Palestine, and we are told by St. Mark and St. Matthew that it was in Galilee that they first saw the risen Lord. But in Acts, St. Luke emphasizes the Savior’s words as He instructed them not to leave Jerusalem, and the fact is important for an understanding of Church history. Jerusalem was the focal point of all the religious and national expectations of the Jews, and the heart of all Old Testament history. Steeped in the golden legend of Solomon’s glory, in the past the city had witnessed the political flowering of Israel. Now, in a time of captivity, she recognized even more clearly her role as the mystical center of Israel, the Holy Zion where, on the yet hidden “day of the Lord,” the Messiah must appear to save His people and restore His kingdom. In the visions of the prophets this messianic kingdom had been transformed from a narrowly national, political restoration into the religious renewal of the world and the triumph of truth and justice. They had envisioned the Messiah Himself as the Savior of mankind from sin and death. And so on Pentecost St. Peter answered the questions of the perplexed crowd in the words of the prophet Joel: “And it shall come to pass in the last days, saith God, I will pour out of my Spirit upon all flesh” (Acts 2:17), and he professed his faith that the “great and notable day of the Lord,” which every Jew awaited and believed in, had already come. This meant that for Christians the Messiah was here and all the promises and expectations of the Old Testament had been fulfilled; the messianic kingdom had arrived. It meant also that the glory of the Lord promised to Jerusalem had come down upon her and that the Old Testament history of salvation had culminated in the Church.

Such was the meaning of the first chapters of Acts, the prologue to Church history. The unbeliever may doubt their historicity. But even he must admit that at no time have Christians failed to believe in this divine origin of the Church, and unless this belief is kept in mind it is virtually impossible to understand the whole subsequent development of her history.

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Three Millennia of Greek Literature

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