Source: The Orthodox Evangelist
by Joseph Abbate
One of the most lasting messages I learned from Father Eusebius [Stephanou] is what he used to call “The Paradox of Orthodox Renewal.” First of all, he would point out the fact that the Orthodox Church is indeed the original Church of history.
After 2000 years, the Church has an unbroken line of succession in the ranks of the clergy all the way back to the Apostles themselves. The Orthodox Church has also brought forth and defended correct doctrine throughout seven Ecumenical Councils which dispelled a series of heretical teachings.
What is Renewal?
First of all, let me point out that Renewal does not involve any doctrinal changes or new practices. It can be described as a refreshing of the Holy Spirit in the everyday life of the believer. It is also a restoration of the position that God had originally designed for every Christian man and woman. This happens namely when we get back to the basics of reading or hearing the word of God and allowing it to register in our hearts and minds, which then develops into a personal relationship with our Creator. Yes, it’s that simple. Yet, this cannot be done on our effort alone, but only with the power of the Holy Spirit, or through what is described as the “Baptism of the Holy Spirit” (Matt. 3:11).
Why is Renewal Needed?
The question remains, if the Church is the true Church of history founded by the Apostles and rooted in correct teaching, how then does it need a renewal? This is a great paradox! If we examine the scriptures, we can understand why. In the book of Revelation, churches which just a few years earlier were founded by St. Paul and St John the Apostles, were addressed and warned by the Lord Jesus Christ Himself.
To the Church of Ephesus, Christ exclaimed that “you have left your first love” (Rev. 2:4). To the Church of Sardis, “you have the name of being alive, and you are dead” (Rev. 3:1). To the Church of Laodicea He said that “I will vomit you out of My mouth” (Rev. 3:16). How can this be? These where Apostolic churches! Very few of the seven churches which were addressed were rebuked because of their beliefs. It was because of their actions, or rather inaction.
We often hold an unrealistic and rose-colored view of the early Church as being a perfect model or example. However, people of any generation are never perfect. Just the very fact that Jesus was exposing their sin and disobedience demonstrates that Satan was working overtime to undermine the Church. If he could not wipe it out of existence through persecution, then he would try to infiltrate it from within. This is what St. Paul described as “The Mystery of Iniquity” (2 Thess. 2:7). What made it such a profound mystery is the fact that Satan was working his way in the very Church established by Christ! If it was in effect back then, how far has it come in 2000 years! Some early figures in the Church such as St. Augustine did not wish to face the possibility of such an apostasy! He claimed that “he did not know what this scripture verse meant,” though I believe that he indeed did, but did not wish to admit it. It was just too scary for anyone to contemplate.
As Father Eusebius had spoken about on a number of occasions is the very matter that if we are truly the Apostolic Church, then we should first follow their tradition of evangelism. That is the most important tradition of all. However, evangelism is seen today as something which is not only missing from the Church, but seen as Protestant. Worse yet is the fact that even miracles are now even seen by many as demonic. This does not mean that there are not serious abuses in some of the different denominations today. There were also abuses during the Apostle Paul’s day in regards of the gifts of the Holy Spirit. Yet, he never said to get rid of these gifts, but rather to “do everything decently and in order.” If we remain insensitive or indifferent to these matters, then we will be Apostolic in name only.
Examples of Renewal
Renewal, or what is named in the West as “Revival,” should not be necessary at all in the Church. Yet, we see historical examples of it. In the history of Western Christianity, we witnessed Renewal movements through such figures as John Calvin or John Knox. In the Eastern Church, we had figures such as St. Symeon the New Theologian and St. Cosmas the Aetolian. Even the monastic movement was a major sign of Renewal. It was a movement of godly men and women who were spiritually hungering for a deeper relationship with their Savior Jesus Christ. Yet, we should ask, why did they have to go outside the four walls of the Church to do this? The same question remains for us today. Why do people feel so spiritually barren even in their church parish? Are not the doctrines sound? Are there not enough activities to do in church? Do we not hear the Holy Scriptures read every Sunday morning? Is this not a paradox in itself? Therefore, Renewal is a great paradox, yet the symptoms for Renewal remain.
Let me reiterate the fact that though Renewal does not involve a change in the doctrines and practices of the Orthodox Church, there has always been a Renewal needed on a personal level since the beginning of time. This is because people are indeed imperfect and need rejuvenation from time to time. St. Paul urged his own disciple Timothy to “Stir up the gift which is in you” (2 Tim. 1:6). St. Paul brought back to Timothy’s mind that the gift of the Holy Spirit was already in him. This happened when he laid his hands on him and prayed for him. It can even be a reference that St. Paul had baptized him. Each baptized believer who has dedicated their life to Christ has the very same gift within themselves already. Think of it! It just needs to be stirred up! Paint which sits on a shelf still has all the ingredients to make great color paint. But unless it is stirred, it can never work properly to its fullest effect.
We can go to church all we want, but unless the gift of the Holy Spirit is stirred up within us, it will make little difference. The spirit-filled life does not work by some state of osmosis, just as standing in a library does not make you absorb all the information in the books which surround you. So we can properly confess that people are in need of a spiritual renewal. People who comprise the body of Christ (the Church), who are filled with the Holy Spirit, will let the gifts and fruits of the Holy Spirit spread throughout their denomination, and thus will spread it to the world abroad in evangelism, through charities and to communities.
Seeking God for Personal Renewal
This will never happen without a spiritual hunger; and hunger follows when a person feels empty. Jesus said, “Blessed are those who hunger and thirst after righteousness, for they shall be filled”. He also said, “But seek first the Kingdom of Heaven and His righteousness and all these things will be given to you” (Matt. 6:33). Let us also remember the words of St. Paul: “The Kingdom of Heaven is righteousness, peace and joy in the Holy Spirit” (Rom. 14:17).
So when we seek the Lord with all our heart and strength, we will receive! Yet, it is not an ambient or vague request we make from the Lord. We should be specific in our prayer requests to the Lord in asking for the Baptism of the Holy Spirit. What is sought after and received personally for personal renewal will be manifested openly in a collective Renewal in the Church.
Can we hear the words of St. Symeon the New Theologian? “Let us be like those who knock patiently and to whom the Lord opens the doors of His kingdom, according to his promise, and like those who seek and are given the Holy Spirit. It is impossible for a man who seeks with all his soul not to find the Spirit and be enriched by His charisms” (gifts).
In the end, Renewal should rather be called a Restoration. But it can only be through a supernatural movement of the Holy Spirit. It cannot be done by human effort; neither is it something that can be written into practice. Just as St. Paul exhorted Timothy, to “stir up what was already in him”, we Orthodox need to personally ask the Holy Spirit to activate that which is laying in a dormant state in our life, so we may in return be able to be the “light of the world”, as Jesus commanded us to be. We can then revive those in our parishes to bring about Renewal in our Church and then proclaim the Gospel and be a powerful witness to the world.
Originally published in the Orthodox Evangelist, Fall 2016. Joseph Abbate is President of the Orthodox Brotherhood of St. Symeon the New Theologian, Inc., Miramar Beach FL.