Wednesday, September 08, 2010
2010 Travel Notes #16: Those Noble-Minded Bereans
These were more noble-minded than those in Thessalonica, in that they received the word with all readiness, and searched the Scriptures daily to find out whether these things were so. (Acts 17:11)
Before returning to Greece, I was unsure whether I would stay in Thessaloniki, or Veria, or someplace in-between. The larger city won out, but Veria was still an easy jaunt from Thessalonika, about 35 miles west, at the base of the mountains. Veria is a small, bustling, modern city, though it is chock-full of historic churches. My interest here, however, lay in the fact that Veria is the very same Berea of old, the city commended by St. Luke in Acts 17.
I actually saw little of Veria, as most of that particular day was spent in transit between an unsuccessful attempt to visit the Monastery of St. Arsenios the Cappadocian and a successful one to the Soumela Monastery. The city streets were narrow, with heavy traffic and little room to park. But I did visit the site where St. Paul preached. The steps have been preserved since those days, and in recent years, a shrine has been constructed around it. In keeping with the scaled-down realities of my travel, this was enough for me. Significantly, I was there on the day after the Apostles Feast.
The passage from Acts 17 was what motivated me to visit Veria in tandem with Thessaloniki. Before being received into the Orthodox Church, I was a member of the Church of Christ, an American restorationist group. Acts 17:11 was one of our golden verses, a passage we would refer to time and again. I imagine it was equally important to Evangelical churches as well. [Verses like 2 Peter 1:20 received considerably less attention.] For the Bereans went to the Scriptures to verify that which St. Paul was preaching to them. Now even we realized the context here--the Scriptures they were searching were those which we now refer to as the Old Testament. And yet, the principle was the same. For what the Bereans did is that which we believed we had done--we had searched the Scriptures, and in so doing, had "restored" the Church of the New Testament. Those Protestant groups who differed from us...well, we believed that they had not searched the Scriptures as diligently as we, for if they had, they would agree with us. And we believed some religious bodies (the Episcopalians, for example) were not searching the Scriptures at all.
And so, this Scriptural contrast between Thessalonica and Berea had real meaning for us--but only in the abstract, a hermeneutic principle, if you will. (On of the great joys of being Orthodox is never having to hear the word "hermeneutics" again.) Most members of my old church would have been surprised to learn that these cities from Acts 17 have existed down to the present day. And they would have rejected the notion that the church has been a living, breathing reality there through all centuries since. This would have been explained-away by the fact that everyone knew that the church "fell-away" into Apostasy soon after the death of the Apostle John. What continued on, past that era would not have been considered the real church. [This is not taught as openly as it once was in Churches of Christ, but without it, their fellowship, as well as much of Protestantism, makes absolutely no sense at all.]
If this belief sounds silly, blinkered and narrow...that is because it is. But this is no straw man I have constructed, to demolish with cheap shots from my side of the fence, where the grass is lush and green. Rather, it is the generally accepted position within my former church. Back in November, 2007, I posted here about an experience of my son's. While visiting in a Church of Christ, he overheard one of the preachers smugly describe to the church how a fellow minister had established a congregation in Thessalonica, so that once again there were Christians in that city. My son-- not yet Orthodox--was so disgusted he started to walk out of the assembly. To the speaker, everything between Acts 17 and then was apparently just a gaping void. When he spoke of "Christians," he meant members of the Church of Christ. The term is not used when referring to other believers. And this was no poor, rural, backward congregation. This was at the big, moneyed establishment church downtown, with attendance ranging between 600 and 700. The preacher saying what he did would have been totally accepted, given the historical blinders in place.
I recall a similar instance myself. In 2004, my son accompanied me on a return trip to Bulgaria, as well as Istanbul, Ephesus, Patmos and Athens. This was my last summer in the Church of Christ, and I guess you could say things were beginning to fall apart in that area of my life. I was asked to give a few lessons for the Wednesday night "Auditorium Class," tying my recent travels to some familar Biblical themes. There was no great interest in where I had gone or what I had seen, only that Wednesday night teachers were notoriously hard to come by. So, they humored me. Anyway, I had just finished up with my last presentation, centered around St. Paul's sermon in Athens. In fact, a panoramic view of the city from the Areopagus was still on the screen. The bell was about to ring, so I opened it up for questions. One man asked, "Are there any Christians in Athens?" My face flushed because I knew what he was asking, and I decided I was not going to play that game. I replied that Greece was overwhelmingly Orthodox Christian, and I pointed to the screen at the score of church domes peppering the skyline. He replied, "No, no, no. I mean are there any New Testament Christians in Athens?" I just looked at him. For in Church of Christ parlance, the word "Christian" always applied to members of the Church of Christ only. Others were considered questionable, at best. The Orthodox--had they even known what they were--would have been completely beyond the pale. [In my defense, I never bought into any of this, and never played those word games. I never uttered the words, "Lord's Church," which was our code for the Church of Christ. Later on, a former preacher told me that I was a poor fit for the Church of Christ. I have to agree.] After a long, awkward pause, I simply said that I could not answer the question in the way he wanted it answered. Then a woman spoke up: "I happen to know that there are Christians in Athens. The Sunset School of Preaching in Lubbock has a campus there, so there must be a few Christians in the city." I was left speechless, and luckily it was time to end the class.
I have wandered far afield in these reminiscences, and I hope I have not soured the mood of these travel logs with such recollections, ones that still leave a bitter taste in my mouth. But I believe I had to explain why it was so important to me to set foot in both Thessaloniki and Veria, two cities where Life in Christ has a 1,950 year-old track record--a living, breathing, continual existence witnessed by the saints and martyrs and the faithful of all the ages. And while I never bought into the institutional ignorance and arrogance I have described, I did not contest it, either. I played it safe. I never made a bold enough stand that the issue ever had to be forced. In short, I was a coward. Perhaps in some strange, convoluted way, my coming to these two cities is partial penance for the system I upheld for so long. I find it hard to explain, but I know my coming here was needful. Once I had decided on Greece, I never considered not coming to these cities.