Posted by: Shawn Ragan | October 17, 2008

The Saints and the Family of God

One of the first things one notices the first time they walk into an Orthodox Church are all of the icons of the Saints.

His Grace, Bishop Joseph and Fr. Mark, hieromonk at St. Ignatius

His Grace, Bishop Joseph and Fr. Mark, hieromonk at St. Ignatius

Rdrs. Andrew and John at Great Vespers

Rdrs. Andrew and John at Great Vespers

I have already shared my first experience with icons in a post called “Expressing Yourself”  My point here is not to talk so much about icons, but about the Saints themselves.  The Saints can be, for some, a real stumbling block as they explore the Apostolic Faith.

In my journey towards the historic and Apostolic Christian Faith, the Saints were really not an issue.  Reading the Bible, one can see the truth of the Saints in almost all of the Books of the Bible.  In addition, one of the things I first noticed about Orthodoxy is that it was not learning about the Faith, but it was living in the Faith.  What I mean by that is this: As a Protestant pastor, I would do sermons or teach classes about the Holy Scriptures – this is good.  We all need to learn about our faith.  But it needs to move from the head to the heart, from some abstract intellectual thought to real experience.

I noticed this in a specific way very early on.  I have taught class and preached on Hebrews 11 & 12.  In this, a great host of Old Testament Saints are talked about (I have been asked this in person, and will answer it here as well, yes, there are Old Testament Saints – the Orthodox Christian Faith did not begin with the Apostles, it is the true continuation of the pre-Incarnation “Jews”.  Father Abraham, according to our Lord, was a Christian (most references in the New Testament show this, but Jn 8:56 is a good example)).

Anyways, back to what I was saying.  I have taught about these passages of Holy Scripture, and I have read about how “we are surrounded by so great a cloud of witnesses” (Hebrews 12:1), but it was always int he abstract.  What does that mean?  I used to think that the word “witnesses” there referred to a testimony – like we have a testimony to look at, but that is not the Greek word present there.  Witnesses there is referring to actual people – the actual witness themselves, not what they witnessed (MARTUS vs. MARTURIA in Greek).  What does it mean to be surrounded by these people who are witnesses?

Standing in the midst of Vespers one day, I looked around at the icons on all four walls.  Not only the icons of these wonderful people who love God and many of whom died for their faith, but also in these icons we see this life in Christ – we see the life they lived.  A weird feeling came over me that day as I realized I was quite literally standing in the midst of this great cloud of witnesses.  Even as I sit here on my laptop at home, behind me are several icons, reminding me of the reality of Hebrews 11-12.

So I began to realize somthing that I continue to grow in on my journey Home – the Christian Faith is not about knowing in some intellectual or abstract fashion what the Bible says or Who Jesus is – it is not about some abstract or intellectual confession that Jesus is Lord – it is about the daily grind and struggle of living what is in the Scripture.  Most Christian know that, and I knew that as a Protestant pastor, but in Orthodoxy I have begun to live it in the Fullness of the Faith.

No matter how hard I tried, Hebrews 11-12 never would have been a reality for me – something that I actually lived in.  As much as I could have intellectually said it was so, the faith I practiced never could have brought that reality to life.  There were doctrinal issues that made that so, but even in others who did not hold the doctrines our former church held, the Saints really just weren’t all that important.

Why look at the Saints when you can go straight to God Himself?  That question, though, is a fallacy.  It is absolutely true we can go straight to God Himself.  We do not need to go through any human being, other than Christ, to get to the Father.  The idea that one can not go straight to God is wholly UNOrthodox, or that someone must go through someone, even Mary, to get to God – again, wholly UNOrthodox.

Life without the Saints, though, is a very small life in God.  And it is simply not the way we do things anyways.  As a pastor, I on numerous occasions every week, had people come up to me and ask me to pray for them.  We had a PhoneTree that sent out prayer requests automatically.  We had a special time in the service for people to share prayer requests, so that the church as a whole could pray for them.  Under that narrow view though, all of that is wrong.  When someone comes to me and asks me to pray for them, should I reply: “No, go pray yourself, I don’t want you to go through me.”  If I said that, I would receive all sorts of bewildered looks of amazement.  “Uh, that’s not what I was doing” one might reply.  Exactly.

Prayer for one another is commanded in the Holy Scriptures; further, prayer for one another is an act of love.  This is where the rubber really meets the road – Christian life is life lived in love itself, because “God is love.”  We pray for one another, we support one another, we encourage one another, not because one has to go through someone else, but because we love one another.  Prayer is, and must be, first of all, an act of love.  The Saints of God do not stop loving because their physical body sleeps.  Scriptures reveal they continue to pray and be in communion with God, who is love.

Prayer, though, is not the main idea I wanted to talk about, it is another.  In the Christian Faith, another element is added in.  Family.  In Orthodoxy, we have seen family – not in biological terms, but in the relationship people have with one another.  Right now, we see this from the outside looking in, and we long to be “grafted in” to this family, and Lord willing, one day we will be.  This family did not begin with me, though, I am journeying into it thousands and thousands of years after it began.  This is a fact neglected by many churches, simply because the truth of the matter is they did not begin until sometime in the last 500 years, after the Reformation.

The Christian Faith has a rich heritage – many have lived the Christian life and show us this path.  The author of Hebrews shows us this in his Epistle, but it did not end there.  Every generation has had these great witnesses – these men and women who lived and died in their Faith, people who stood against heresy and would not compromise or deny the Faith, even under extreme torture and death.  We have a rich heritage, our fathers and mothers and brothers and sisters who have gone before us, who have “fought the good fight.”  As we have journeyed into Orthodoxy, we have begun to realize just how big this Faith is, how deep and how rich.

Many today are trying to learn their geneaology.  They want to know about their roots and where they came from – who are their ancestors.  What does this really mean, though, to a Christian?  In Christianity, the old man is put to death, and we are born anew.  We leave the world, and we enter the Holy Church – the Family of God.  People are looking for their heritage, but as I journey into Orthodoxy, my German ancestry totally unimportant, for there is “neither Greek nor Jew, male nor female, free or slave, but we are all one in Christ Jesus.”  For the Christian Faith, the heritage we have inherited is that of the Family of God – and just like in our earthly families, those who came before us are an important part of that heritage – even more so because the Scriptures teach us they are still “alive in Christ.”

The Saints can help us in our journey, they can encourage us, they pray for us, they cheer us on, they teach us, and most importantly, both by their earthly life and their heavenly prayers, they point us to Christ Himself.  By their lives and their prayers, they show us the Faithfulness of God.  They do not take away from God, they show us how great God really is.

“But you have come to Mount Zion and to the city of the living God, the heavenly Jerusalem, to an innumerable company of angels, to the general assembly and church of the firstborn who are registered in heaven, to God the Judge of all, to the spirits of just men made perfect, to Jesus the Mediator of the new covenant, and to the blood of sprinkling that speaks better things than that of Abel.” Hebrews 12:22-24

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