Now when he was in Jerusalem at the Passover feast, many believed in his name when they saw the signs which he did; 24 but Jesus did not trust himself to them, 25 because he knew all men and needed no one to bear witness of man; for he himself knew what was in man. 1 Now there was a man of the Pharisees, named Nicodemus, a ruler of the Jews. 2 This man came to Jesus by night and said to him,“Rabbi, we know that you are a teacher come from God; for no one can do these signs that you do, unless God is with him.”3 Jesus answered him,“Truly, truly, I say to you, unless one is born anew, he cannot see the kingdom of God.”4 Nicodemus said to him,“How can a man be born when he is old? Can he enter a second time into his mother’s womb and be born?”5 Jesus answered, “Truly, truly, I say to you, unless one is born of water and the Spirit, he cannot enter the kingdom of God. 6 That which is born of the flesh is flesh, and that which is born of the Spirit is spirit. 7 Do not marvel that I said to you, ‘You must be born anew.’8 The wind blows where it wills, and you hear the sound of it, but you do not know whence it comes or whither it goes; so it is with every one who is born of the Spirit.”9 Nicodemus said to him,“How can this be?”10 Jesus answered him, “Are you a teacher of Israel, and yet you do not understand this? 11 Truly, truly, I say to you, we speak of what we know, and bear witness to what we have seen; but you do not receive our testimony. 12 If I have told you earthly things and you do not believe, how can you believe if I tell you heavenly things? (Revised Standard Version)
Based on the Gospel reading for this coming Sunday (Sunday of the World Church: Green Sunday), the following are suggested themes for sermon topics:
According to the Armenian Church calendar, the second Sunday following Zadeeg is designated as “Sunday of the World Church” (Աշխարհամատրամ Կիրակի). Although little is definitively known about the origin of this feast day, or why it is referred to as “Green Sunday” (Կանաչ Կիրակի), is there still something it can say to the Armenian Church today?
What we do know about this particular day can be derived from the sharagan of the day which contains the theme of blessing or consecrating a chapel (possibly a commemoration of some historic church dedication, most likely located in Jerusalem). In fact, a more accurate translation of the feast day is, “Sunday of the World Chapel” implying the physical building of a church (մատուռ), rather than the word for Church (Եեկեղեցի), which refers to the community of believers.
An excerpt of the hymn sung during Առաւօտեան ժամ (Morning Office) tells us what Armenian Christians believe the Church to be, which includes the building:
Having become your disciples by the holy apostles, we learned to glorify you in the temple of your holiness, which you founded upon the rock of faith, Lord, God of our Fathers. Come, people of the nations, let us joyfully celebrate the inauguration/dedication of the holy church, praising the Lord God of our Fathers. Together with the bodiless multitudes, all nations forever praise and highly exalt Christ the King who comes today into the holy church. Come into the church, people whose faith is in the Holy Trinity. Praise God. Joyfully celebrate to the edges of the table, and highly exalt him forever. (trans. Bp. Daniel Findikyan)
Having been consecrated as a house of worship and prayer, every church building is a sacred space that resembles and recalls the holiness of heaven itself, in some cases the universe. It is where the faithful gather as the Body of Christ, where the richest and deepest mysteries of the Church are revealed and celebrated. The architecture is theologically meaningful as a brick and mortar icon of the presence of Jesus Christ, and our being grafted into him through baptism. As Peter writes to the Church in his first epistle (2:5),
Like living stones, you are being built into a spiritual house, to be a holy priesthood, to offer spiritual sacrifices acceptable to God through Jesus Christ.
What does it mean, or look like, to be a living stone? Baptized into the Church, the Body of Christ, we all have a priestly ministry to the whole world: to give thanks to God for offering himself to us, and to offer ourselves back to him, to see the world as God sees it, and to offer the world the same eternal life that God gave us. Rather than having a mission, the Church is a mission, a mission to the world. It is one of reaching out and inviting others, everyone – from those already baptized into our family to those who never heard – into communion with Jesus Christ in whom there is healing and peace.
And the healing that we long for as an Armenian people still suffering from ancient and contemporary wounds inflicted upon us by the world, will be found when we forgive and then share God’s love, forgiveness, and healing with others, when we allow God to raise us up, as a people, as the Church to recognize and stand for those in need of his justice and healing in the world, just as Christ has demonstrated his love to us.
The universal Church, which includes the Armenian Church, is the voice of hope and the hands of healing in the world, and our nourishment to carry out our mission to the world finds its source in Holy Badarak. Before distributing Christ’s Body and Blood, the priest’s prays: Տպաւորեա՛ ի մեզ…
Imprint upon us the grace of your Holy Spirit as you did on the holy apostles, who ate this meal and became the ones to clean the whole world.
After sharing Holy Communion, the people sing together, proclaiming that our celebration of Holy Badarak is for salvation, not just for us as Christian Armenians, but for the whole world: Գոհանամք զքէն Տէր…
We thank you, Lord, for you have fed us at your immortal table, serving your Body and Blood for the salvation of the world and as life for ourselves.
Who else will be Jesus to the rejected of society if not the Church, if not the Armenian Church? Let’s not wait for others to do that kind of ministry because they might be better at it and have more experience, because we have other issues of importance to which we are required to attend. The world is waiting for hope, a hope that lasts – the exact hope that the Armenian Church has to offer, with the Cross perched on top of the kmpet (գմբեթ) casting its shadow over the world, the symbol for which our church buildings now stand, and have firmly stood over the centuries weathering every attack, pandemic, and evil thrust upon her.
What does any of this mean if I cannot go to the physical Church building?
St. Paul in his letter to the Ephesians writes,
There is one body and one Spirit, just as you were called to the one hope that belongs to your call, one Lord, one faith, one baptism…And his gifts were that some should be apostles, some prophets, some evangelists, some pastors and teachers, to equip the saints for the work of ministry, for building up the body of Christ. (Ephesians 4:4-5, 11-12)
Whether or not we are able to go to a physical church building to celebrate the sacraments, the Church is still the Body of Christ. We are still united with Jesus Christ and with one another through the one Lord, our one faith, and one baptism. Perhaps we need to adjust how we think of Church. The Church is not just the building we attend, although most of us talk about “going” to Church. A more accurate way to understand the Church is “being” the Church, the family of baptized believers that make up the Body of Christ. Which for most of us, interestingly, happens outside the church building.
Is the Church a Eucharistic community? That is, one that experiences the Lord and meets him in the hearing of the Gospel and in the Mystery of the Cup? Absolutely, and that is where the Church as the Church is expressed and revealed in its fullness, and of course, we must go somewhere to share that Mystery. But how is the Church a Eucharistic community, a Badarak community? In other words, are we a community of offering, sacrifice, and thanksgiving only when Badarak takes place? The answer is no. In fact, Badarak does not end with the final “Amen!” One could say that is when it begins! We participate in Badarak in order to be nourished to bring God’s love to the world, to share our special gifts and unique talents with the rest of the Body of Christ, our family of brothers and sisters who are all struggling in their own way, praying for God to answer their prayers. Who else but the Body of Christ, the Church, to best extend the hands of Jesus Christ to those people? St Paul writes to the Church in Corinth:
For just as the body is one and has many members, and all the members of the body, though many, are one body, so it is with Christ. For by one Spirit we were all baptized into one body—Jews or Greeks, slaves or free—and all were made to drink of one Spirit. For the body does not consist of one member but of many…As it is, there are many parts, yet one body. The eye cannot say to the hand, “I have no need of you,” nor again the head to the feet, “I have no need of you.” …If one member suffers, all suffer together; if one member is honored, all rejoice together. (I Corinthians 12:12-14, 20-21, 26)
Let’s be clear about a few things. It is true that the Church in its fullness is expressed through her Sacraments and Liturgy, so we must admit there is something severely missing when we cannot go to the physical building to pray, light a candle, venerate an icon, hug another Christian, hear the Gospel sacramentally, and share the saving Body and Blood of Jesus Christ. This situation is less than ideal. Orthodox Christianity, especially, does not ignore the material world, quite the opposite, we embrace it, because we embrace the Incarnation of Jesus Christ – God who became flesh and blood, redeeming creation, once again calling it “good.” And of course this is evidenced by the fact that we celebrate something called, “Sunday of the World Church,” the consecration of a physical building. For Orthodox Christians, material things and places are important, even holy, including our church buildings, even when they are no longer in use and abandoned to the cruelty of time and vandalism. But it is a secular notion to believe that the church building is only place where God resides, where holiness is found, where our Christian life is best expressed.
Do not misunderstand: this is in no way undermining the importance of the priesthood, the Badarak, the sacraments, the liturgy, or the church building and everything that goes on within its walls. Nor is it adopting a non-sacramental “priesthood of believers” theology as believed, taught, and practiced in some Protestasnt circles. We need to be careful as we try to theologically navigate these new and untimely waters and as we try to understand the role of the Church as the Body of Christ, when most of us are unable to enter a church building and share in all of its healing, beauty, and holiness. The point is, the Church as the Church does not cease to exist between Sunday afternoon following Badarak, and then pick up its existence again the following Sunday at the beginning of the next Badarak. There is work to be done between the last time we participated in Badarak in person and the next time we come together again for Badarak as a family and share Holy Communion in person. Just because the Church is limited liturgically, does not mean the Church, as the Body of Christ, is limited missionally. God be with us.
Born of the Spirit
The traditional interpretation of the early Church, including Armenian Church Fathers, of the phrase “born again” has always been to equate it with Holy Baptism during which we are sealed with the gift of the Holy Spirit (Titus 3:5, Ephesians 1:13). St. Gregory of Narek writes (93 C),
Similarly, this oil of salvation, sanctified with light, is poured on us to anoint our outer temple, and enters us in secret and unseen, whereby the inner man is born again.
Unless a person is baptized into a new life, it is not possible to become a member of the Church, the Body of Christ, or enter into God’s kingdom, as Jesus tells Nicodemus, “Unless one is born anew, he cannot see the kingdom of God.” Through Jesus Christ, God inaugurated a new family made up of those who are “born again.” Ordinary birth as a child of Abraham was no longer enough for God’s chosen people. God’s Kingdom became open to the world, and the people of God now make up the Church (Galatians 3:27-29), the womb from which we are born through baptism. Again, St. Gregory of Narek prays (75 K, L),
Just as without the Father, there is no Christ, so without the womb of the mother Church, the soul cannot be fulfilled…She [the Church] gives birth to godly mortals, saints in the image of the sole God, Christ.
When we are born again through baptism, we die to our sin (I John 3:9) and are raised to newness of life, because we are united to the eternal, resurrected life of Christ (Romans 6:3-4, I Peter 1:3). We are cleansed and given a new heart through the Holy Spirit, the same Spirit that raised Christ from the dead (Ezekiel 36:25-27, Romans 8:11). In short, we are born again as a new creation (II Corinthians 5:17). What does this mean? It means it is no longer our will be done, but God’s will be done. We, the Church, the Body of Christ, are the mission that the Gospel accomplishes. Instead of living according to our passions that often drag us away from God and into unfulfilling routines and habits, we are given the gift to live like Christ, to become like he is – divine. We are able to heal, love, and forgive as he does.
This new birth, being “born again,” is but the beginning of our new life, not a single subjective experience. Knowledge of God (Աստուածգիտութիւն), enlightenment, begins at baptism, but the promises made at our baptism follow us, call us, and demand from us throughout our entire life and faith journey. So how do we feed and nurture that life? Do we live a life of repentance, perpetuating the faith, hope, and love asked for us by our Godparents at baptism? As we recite in the Creed, “We believe…in one baptism with repentance for the remission and forgiveness of sins,” baptism, our new life in Christ, is always connected to a life of confession, repentance, and conversion – always being transformed to the image of God, regularly, unceasingly turning toward Jesus Christ, our Savior and Healer.
Our Baptism is anything but a static event captive to the past on the day that it took place. It must be recalled daily, even momentarily. It should permeate our lives as Christians, where we live out our Baptism in response to what Christ first did for us. How do we respond? How do we fulfill the baptismal vows spoken over us by our Godparents, the priest, and those of the Church community in attendance that glorious day? By living a committed, holy, and consecrated life dedicated to God. By forgiving our enemies, even of unfathomable atrocities, even if it must be done over and over, day by day. By loving God and loving others as he first loved us. By seeing God everywhere present in the world, by viewing the world, others, and ourselves through the love of Christ. By seeing God in the routine, in the mundane, in the extravagant, and in the tragic, allowing these things to ever draw us closer to him in order to become like him.