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And Believers Were the More Added

Sermon on the Acts of the Apostles (5:12-20), Second Sunday of Pascha: Saint Thomas Sunday

by Father James Thornton

The book of the Acts of the Apostles, a priceless historical record of the Apostolic Church from the time of the Resurrection of Christ to Saint Paul's missionary activities in Rome, was written by the physician Saint Luke, a Gentile, and almost certainly a Greek convert to Christianity. The book may be seen as a continuation of the narrative of the Gospel according to Saint Luke, extending the narrative into the earliest period of Apostolic times.

The passages chosen for Saint Thomas Sunday, from the fifth chapter of Acts, survey the great explosion of missionary activity that occurred in and around Jerusalem in these first years of the Christian era. These verses relate: that "by the hands of the Apostles were many signs and wonders wrought among the people"; that while some were fearful of joining the Apostles, since these men were sufficiently bold to excite the fury of the local religious authorities, the people, nevertheless, "magnified them"; that huge throngs of sick were brought by the people and laid on pallets in the street so that the shadow of Saint Peter might be cast upon them and thereby heal them; and that all of the sick and all of those troubled by unclean spirits "were healed every one."

One of these verses also states that great multitudes of men and women were inspired by the God-pleasing activities of the Apostles to join the Christian community: "And believers were the more added to the Lord." In other words, ever greater numbers of people joined the newly founded Church. The Church was expanding in its membership, and it was expanding rapidly.

When that expansion came to the attention of the representatives of the old religion, their anger and alarm were kindled, and so the Apostles were seized and thrown into prison. But the Lord sent an Angel who miraculously opened the locked prison doors and commanded the Apostles to "Go, stand and speak in the temple to the people all the words of this life." The Angel of the Lord directed these leaders of the Christian community to go into the temple and fearlessly preach the saving message of Christ Jesus to the people.

Now, please note that the principal theme of this reading is the astonishingly rapid spread of the Gospel message and rapid growth of the Church. Christ Himself had given the command: "Go ye therefore, and teach all nations" are the words quoted by Saint Matthew and "Go ye into all the world, and preach the Gospel to every creature" are those from Saint Mark. The meaning of the two is identical. The point is that Christ's message of eternal salvation, that is, Christ's Gospel or "Good News," is intended for all the peoples of the world; for all, not only for some particular nations, or peoples, or linguistic groups; for all, not only for Jews, or for Greeks, or for Slavs, or for Latins, or for Anglo-Saxons, or for Germans; but for all!

Moreover, this saving message has suffered over the decades and centuries at the hands of sectarians of various sorts, who either added to Christ's teachings or expunged certain crucial elements from them. Yet, the Gospel of Christ, according to the true intent of Christ's own words, is to be preached to all of the people of the world in its original completeness, in its original context, that is, in its fullness. That complete, authentic, and pure Christianity is found only in Orthodoxy.

To imagine that Orthodoxy is a variety of Christianity intended for Greeks and Slavs, Roman Catholicism the variety intended for Latins, Anglicanism the variety intended for the English, Lutheranism the variety intended for the Germans, and Calvinism the variety intended for the Swiss and the Scots, is a grave error—a heresy, in actual fact. To imagine that is tantamount to imagining that Christ's Gospel can maintain its integrity while undergoing a process of radical inner mutation as it passes from one culture to another. It does not do so and could not do so. Such would be impossible. Saint Paul writes that Jesus Christ is "the same yesterday, and today, and for ever," and therefore, since the doctrines of all of these numerous religious groups differ immensely in their essentials, Christ's Gospel can exist in its fullness in only one of them. We know that that one is Orthodoxy, not only because it is the eldest of Christian Churches, as it demonstrably is, but, much more significantly, because its witness, verified in the lives of thousands of Saints, even Saints in our own time like Saint John of San Francisco, testifies to its perfect conformity with the fullness of the Gospel. No other religious body has produced men like these. None! Ever!

My reason for mentioning all of this is neither to stimulate any false pride nor to pass judgement on the sincerity of our non-Orthodox friends and neighbors. God forbid! If we wish to feel some sense of satisfied smugness because of our membership in the Orthodox Church, let us have this feeling when, and only when, we begin successfully to emulate the great Saints who epitomize Orthodoxy as a way of life, not just a collection of beautiful words. However, were we truly to emulate these Saints, our humility would proscribe any smugness.

My reason for mentioning all of this is not for the sake of pride or the spirit of judgment, but rather to underscore a critical message in today's Epistle reading. Christ commanded His followers to preach His Gospel in its fullness, in the fullness of Orthodoxy, to all of the peoples of the world. That command applied not simply to the Apostles or to the members of the early Church. That command is meant for us all. Being an Orthodox Christian, being a part of the Orthodox Church, places us under this serious obligation. We all are expected to bring Christ's Gospel to other men and women. How, you may ask, do we do this?

Verse thirteen of today's reading relates that the people "magnified" Christ's Apostles. That means that the people thought and spoke highly of the Apostles, they celebrated the presence of these men among themselves, and they were attracted to them because of the spiritual radiance that shined forth from them, the same spiritual radiance, I should note, that shined forth from Saint John of Kronstadt and Saint John of San Francisco during their earthly lives and that attracted perceptive people, who wished to draw closer to these two men and men like them. If we could so order our own lives that we were more like the Holy Apostles and more like the two Saints John, then spiritually perceptive people would be brought closer to us and would wish to discover the means by which we achieved a measure of spiritual radiance. Thus, we are expected to strive to refashion our lives in accordance with Christ's Gospel and that, by itself, will constitute a form of preaching to others: preaching by example.

Next, I suggest that we think, in our own minds, right now, of people we know who are not members of the Orthodox Church but who could profit in their lives from spiritual nourishment. In a society such as ours, immersed as it certainly is in materialism, superficiality, selfishness, appalling stupidity, and horrifying shortsightedness; a society stamped with all of the hallmarks of the proverbial paradise of fools; a society that actually boasts of its "right" to murder millions of its own innocent offspring; in a society such as ours, there must be millions of people who seek after something more ennobling, who look for something to uplift their hearts, who search for something to quench their spiritual thirst and fill the emptiness in their souls, who long for answers to age-old questions like sin, pain, and death. The ennobling, the uplifting, the quenching, the fulfilling, and the answers are all found in traditional Orthodox Christianity, and yet, for wholly unsound reasons, our inclination is to hide our Church as if it were some kind of exclusive club.

Television screens are full of charlatans of various stripes who exploit such yearnings and thereby make themselves wealthy, all the while leaving their followers as spiritually destitute and hungry, to say nothing of deluded, as they were before. Orthodox Christianity can rescue people from these religious quacks, if we will but do as the Apostles did in today's reading: "speak...to the people all the words of...life."

And so, with regard to these people who yearn for spiritual betterment and who would benefit from association with our Church, we are called upon by Christ to invite them to experience the richness and the wisdom of two thousand years of Orthodox Christianity and to begin their journey to Christlikeness, which will bring them, and us, eternal salvation. Let it be said of the contemporary Orthodox Church, as it was said of the early Orthodox Church in Jerusalem so long ago: "And believers were the more added to the Lord, multitudes both of men and women"

From Quickened with Christ (Etna, CA: Center for Traditionalist Orthodox Studies, 2004). This superb book of homilies is highly recommended! Posted on 10 March, 2006 (n.s.).