BROTHERS and SISTERS, He Who establishes us with you in Christ and has anointed us is God, Who has sealed us and given us the Spirit in our hearts as a guarantee. But I call on God as witness against my soul, that to spare you I did not come again to Corinth. I do not mean to imply that we have dominion over your faith. Rather, we are fellow workers for your joy, because by faith you stand firm. So I made up my mind not to come again to you in sorrow. For if I cause you sorrow, who is there to make me glad but the one who is made sorrowful by me? And I wrote as I did, so that when I came, I might not have sorrow over those from whom I should rejoice. For I am confident about all of you, that my joy would be the joy of all of you. For I wrote to you out of much distress and anguish of heart and with many tears, not to grieve you, but to let you know the abundant love that I have for you.
In today's short reflection I would like to focus only on the first sentence from Saint Paul's letter, in particular on the three words "establish," "seal," "guarantee."
God "establishes us with you in Christ." Us and you here are the apostles and the Christians in Corinth. The apostles, in particular Saint Paul, initiated the Christian community there, while God established all of them in Christ. Meaning, God established a relationship between the apostles and the people in Corinth, He established the Church.
The Church is always established by God. It is not established by a government, a diocese, or a group of people with by-laws. It is always established by God. The Church is answerable only to Him, not to civil authorities, or a bishop, or a parishioner. This basic principle has been lost on some of us during the last six or so months. Note, however, that I am not saying that the government, or the bishops, or the people should be disregarded in the Church. We always pray for the government that they do their job properly. Our bishops guide us on the straight and narrow path. And the people make up the Church. But the Church itself, the relationship of all the parts that make up the Church, is established only by God in Christ.
The seals are not as common today as they used to be, but they are still done in Church. The seal, or the stamp, is God's mark on human life, it is a sign that someone belong to God. From the earliest times in Christian history, this seal has been the sign of the cross. In the baptismal service, the newly-baptized Christian is anointed with the holy oil (called the chrism) in the form of the cross on the forehead, face, ears, chest, back, hands, feet. This anointing is explicitly called the seal, as the priest says with each anointing, "The Seal of the gift of the Holy Spirit." We are sealed by God for God.
This anointing is a sign of God's continued protection for those who belong to Him. We are not sealed because it a nice, cute custom. We are sealed because now God is our Helper and Protector. The seal is also not magic. Like any seal, it can be lost or violated. For this reason we pray at baptism that the newly-baptized will preserve the seal inviolate to the end of his/her life.
To preserve it, we need to constantly remind ourselves Whose we are. That's why, for example, we cross ourselves so often - in church, at home during prayers, before meals... The sign of the cross we make over ourselves is the prayer to the Holy Spirit for the divine protection, as well as a reminder that we carry God's seal upon ourselves.
If it was that simple to preserve the seal inviolate, then it would not be special, it would not be worth doing at all. To keep the seal protected we also need to be constantly in our baptism. And what is baptism? Baptism is a conversion, it is repentance. Someone once told me that our parish does not have converts. Nonsense, I said, if we had no converts than we would not be a Church. In fact, every one of us who comes to church is a convert. Nobody, ever, is born Orthodox Christian. Nobody is born already baptized. Baptism is conversion, conversion from our old and sinful ways of the fallen world to the new and salvific ways that Christ offers us. And repentance is a realization, acknowledgement, confession, and firm actions to change from old ways to new ones. That's how we preserve God's seal upon us, that's how we are ever mindful Whose we are.
The gift of the Holy Spirit that we are given at baptism, during the chrismation, is the guarantee by God of inviolability of the contract on His part. The Holy Spirit is the pledge of something that is to come, namely the eternal life with God in His Kingdom. But it is also a downpayment, which already signifies a presumption of ultimate possession. For instance, when we make a downpayment on a house, we begin to reside in it immediately. The house is ours and will remain that way for as long as we pay that mortgage. Similarly, the downpayment of the Holy Spirit tells us that we are God's and will remain so because God, unlike us sometimes, is able to make the payments all the time.
The gift of the Holy Spirit is really a gift. Our Father is giving our own downpayment, as well as the full payment through Christ's suffering, death, burial, resurrection, and ascension. From God's side, the deal is sealed.
Yours in the Lord,
Father Aleksey - your friendly Singac priest