Fr. Stavros N. Akrotirianakis is the Proistamenos of St. John Greek Orthodox Church in Tampa, FL. Fr. contributes the Prayer Team Ministry, a daily reflection, which began in February 2015. The Prayer Team now has its own dedicated website! Fr. Stavros has produced two books, “Let All Creation Rejoice: Reflections on Advent, the Nativity and Epiphany”: “https://amzn.to/2t1rXwh and “The Road Back to Christ: Reflections on Lent, Holy Week and the Resurrection.” https://amzn.to/2WAcfG0
Listen Now. We will now be including the daily reading of Epistle and Gospel with The Prayer Team.
Jesus said to them again, “Peace be with you. As the Father has sent Me, even so I send you.” John 20:21
The Book of Acts and the Early Ecclesia—Part One
“Ecclesia” Does Not Mean “Church” and the “Church” is Not the Building
For we are the temple of the living God; as God said “I will live in them and move among them, and I will be their God, and they shall be My people. Therefore come out from them, and be separate from them, says the Lord, and touch nothing unclean; then I will welcome you, and I will be a Father to you, and you shall be My sons and daughters, says the Lord Almighty.” II Corinthians 6:16-18
Good morning Prayer Team!
One of the most misleading words in Christianity is the word “church.” Today’s word “church” comes from an English word “chirche” which came from the Germanic word “kiriko,” which came from the Ancient Greek “kuriakon” which means “belonging to the Lord.” Today, this word usually refers to the building in which we worship. I would argue that our use of the word “church” has little relation to what Christ founded two thousand years ago. Allow me to explain using a three very significant Greek words that are usually translated as “church.” Because the proper translation of these three words radically changes not only the definition but the purpose of what we call today “church.”
In the Bible, when Jesus tells Peter in Matthew 6:18, “And I tell you, you are Peter and on this rock I will build My church,” the word used in Greek is the word “ecclesia.” In fact, the word “ecclesia” is used over 100 times in the New Testament and each time it is translated in English as “church.”
The word “ecclesia” comes from a Greek word “ekkaleo” which means “to call out from.” Specifically, the “ecclesia” is a gathering of people called out for a divine purpose, to glorify God, to grow in God, to grow towards God, to attain salvation through faith and repentance and to share the message of Christ with all nations. The invitation to join the “ecclesia” is an invitation to “come out from them, and be separate from them” as we read in II Corinthians 6:17. So, the “ecclesia” is not a building, but rather a gathering of people, called out from the world, to grow in Christ, to experience His Kingdom in both this life and for eternal life.
The Greek word “iero” is translated both as “holy” and as “temple.” In Luke 24:53, which we have already mentioned, when the disciples were“continually in the temple blessing God,” the Greek word is “iero”. The same word is used on Luke 2:27, when Jesus is brought to the temple for His presentation at forty days. The verse reads “And inspired by the Spirit, he came into the temple,” referring to Simeon, and the word in Greek is “ieron”.
The Greek word “naos” is also generally translated as “temple.” Sometimes both words are used in the same passage. For instance in John 2: 13-25, we read how Jesus cleansed the temple of the moneychangers. In John 2: 14-15, we read “In the temple (iero) He found those who were selling oxen and sheep and pigeons, and the money-changers at their business. And making a whip of cords He drove them all, with the sheep and oxen, out of the temple (iero). In verses 18-21, we read “The Jews then said to Him, ‘What sign have You to show us for doing this?’ Jesus answered them, ‘Destroy this temple (naos) and in three days I will raise it up.’ The Jews then said, ‘it has taken forty-six years to build this temple (naos) and will you raise it up in three days?’ But He spoke of the temple (naos) of His Body.”
As we’ve previously mentioned, the Old Testament understanding of the temple was that it was the place where God dwelt. One had to go to the temple in order to worship God. Christ corrected that understanding by saying that God is everywhere. Saint Paul further expounded on this idea when he wrote that we are temples, that we have God within us. In I Corinthians 6: 19-20, we read “Do you not know that your body is a temple (naos) of the Holy Spirit within you, which you have from God? You are not your own; you were bought with a price. So glorify God in your body.”
So, “naos” is a “temple” that contains God. And that can refer to the temple where people were worshipping, also called the “iero” but it also refers to us, the people, who are “temples” containing God within us.
Let’s go back to “ecclesia” for a moment. The “ecclesia,” then, is not a place or a building, but a gathering of the people. In the Orthodox Church, we have the living presence of Christ in the Tabernacle in the Altar. However, when the church building is empty, other than Christ, the building is not the “ecclesia”. When people gather in a hospital to pray with someone, the “ecclesia” is there. If they gather in a home for Bible study, the “ecclesia” is there. This is why the most important thing in a church community is not where the community is, but what the community does. The most important thing that the community does, of course, is to worship Christ, and partake of Him in the Divine Liturgy. And this takes place in the church building. But what if the church building burned down? The “ecclesia” could gather in the church hall to celebrate the Divine Liturgy. If no one goes to worship on a Sunday, if a congregation dwindles to the point that it is non-viable, the church building might remain, but the “ecclesia” at least in that area, has ceased.
The point of today’s reflection is that the “ecclesia” is defined as the gathering of God’s people who are set apart for a holy purpose. It is not the building in which they worship. This is why when we hold the building in such high esteem, and we put all our effort into the building, we miss the point of what the“ecclesia” is all about. When all we do is gather for worship but we don’t gather for anything else—no charity, no fellowship, etc.—we’ve also missed the point of the “ecclesia”. Because the work of the “ecclesia” as we will find, is more than worship.
In the early centuries of Christianity, the church was underground. It was a persecuted church. There were no big buildings or elaborate cathedrals. And yet the church grew at an exponential rate. It wasn’t the buildings that were attracting people, but the “ecclesies”, the gatherings of people in homes, in catacombs, the outreach and charity of the people and their willingness to die for their faith. These things were very attractive.
When the church emerged from persecution under the reign of Emperor Constantine, this is when there began to be a proliferation of church buildings. Now, there is nothing wrong with a nice church in which to worship. We just have to remember that the “ecclesia” is more about the gathering of people than the building that gather in. It is about what the people gather to do rather than where they gather to do it. And it is about people being set apart in their gatherings for a holy purpose.
I waited patiently for the Lord; He inclined to me and heard my cry. He drew me up from the desolate pit, out of the miry bog, and set my feet upon a rock, making my steps secure. He put a new song in my mouth, a song of praise to our God. Many will see and fear, and put their trust in the Lord. Blessed is the man who makes the Lord his trust, who does not turn to the proud, to those who go astray after false gods! Thou hast multiplied, O Lord my god, Thy wondrous deeds and Thy thoughts toward us; none can compare with Thee! Were I to proclaim and tell of them they would be more than can be numbered. Sacrifice and offering Thou dost not desire; but Thou hast given me an open ear. Burnt offering and sin offering Thou hast not required. Then I said, “Lo, I come; in the roll of the book it is written of me; I delight to do Thy will, O my god; Thy law is within my heart.” I have told the glad news of deliverance in the great congregation; lo, I have no restrained my lips, as Thou knowest, O Lord. I have not hid Thy saving help within my heart, I have spoken of Thy faithfulness and Thy salvation; I have not concealed Thy steadfast love and Thy faithfulness from the great congregation. Do not Thou, O Lord, withhold Thy mercy from me, let Thy steadfast love and Thy faithfulness ever preserve me! For evils have encompassed me without number; my iniquities have overtaken me; till I cannot see. They are more than the hairs of my head; my heart fails me. Be pleased, O Lord, to deliver me! O Lord, make haste to help me! Let them be put to shame and confusion altogether who seek to snatch away my life; let them be turned back and brought to dishonor who desire my hurt! Let them be appalled because of their shame who say to me, “Aha, Aha!” But may all who seek Thee rejoice and be glad in thee; may those who love Thy salvation say continually, “Great is the Lord!” As for me, I am poor and needy; but the Lord takes thought for me. Thou art my help and my deliverer; do not tarry, O my God! Psalm 40
It is important to remember that we belong not to a church building, but to the ecclesia.
**The highlighted word “congregation” is one of the few instances where the Greek word “ecclesia” is used in the Old Testament.
With Roger Hunt providing today’s Daily Reading: Listen Now.
These readings are under copyright and is used by permission. All rights reserved. These works may not be further reproduced, in print or on other websites or in any other form, without the prior written authorization of the copyright holder: Reading © Holy Transfiguration Monastery – Brookline, MA, Apolytikion of Abbot Marcellus © Narthex Press, Kontakion of Abbot Marcellus © Holy Transfiguration Monastery – Brookline, MA.
The Revised Standard Version of the Bible is copyrighted 1946, 1952, 1971, and 1973 by the Division of Christian Education of the National Council of the Churches of Christ in the U.S.A. and used by permission. From the Online Chapel of the Greek Orthodox Archdiocese of America.
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