The Triumph of the Church, by St. John Chrysostom
"How does one prove that Christ is God? We should not try to answer this question by using the argument of the creation of heaven and earth, because the unbeliever will not accept it. If we tell him that He raised the dead, healed the blind, expelled demons, he still will not agree. If we tell him that He promised us resurrection from the dead, the kingdom of heaven, and ineffable goods, not only he will not agree, but also he will laugh at us.
How then shall we lead him to the faith, especially when he is not spiritually developed? Surely, we shall do this by resting on truths which are acceptable both to us and to him without any dispute or shadow of doubt.
We shall start from the fact that Christ planted the Church in the world. What is the point then that we absolutely agree upon? It is the fact that Christ planted the Church. It is by this means that we shall reveal the power and prove the divinity of Christ. We shall see that it is impossible to regard the dissemination of Christianity in the whole wide world in such a short period of time as a human work. And indeed, when Christian ethics invites people who have bad habits and are slaves to sin to a higher life. And yet, the Lord managed to liberate from such things not only us, but the entire human species.
Christ’s superbly wondrous achievement is the Church. He achieved this without using arms, without spending money, without mobilizing armies, without causing wars. He achieved it by starting only with twelve disciples, who were insignificant, uneducated, poor, naked, unarmed… It was with such human resource that He succeeded in persuading the nations to think correctly, not only in the present life, but also in the life which is to come. He managed to nullify the ancestral laws, to uproot ancient customs, and to plant new ones. He managed to detach man from an easy way of life and to lead him to a difficult one. He managed all these things, although all fought against Him, and He had to endure a degrading crucifixion and an ignominious death!
This superbly wondrous achievement is not human. Surely, such things do not occur to human beings. What occurs is the exact opposite. In other words, as long as they are alive and prosper their work progresses. When, however, they die, what they created is destroyed along with them. This is endured not only by the rich or the leading ones, but also by the chief governors. This is so, because their laws are abolished, their memory is obliterated, and their names are forgotten, while their intimate associates are pushed aside. These things occur to those who originally governed the nations by a mere nod, and led to war grand armies; to those who condemned to death and recalled the exiled. To the Lord, however, it was the exact opposite that occurred.
It is superbly wondrous because it was achieved by the Crucified Christ. Before the crucifixion the state of his work looked pitiful. Judas betrayed Him. Peter denied Him. The rest of the Disciples fled in order to save their lives, while many believers abandoned Him. He was left alone among enemies. And yet, after the slaughter and the death, so that you may learn that the Crucified Christ was not a mere man, all things became brighter, jollier, and glorious. Peter, the head Apostle, who before the crucifixion did not bear the threat of a maidservant, but after so many heavenly teachings and his participation in the divine mysteries said that he does not know the Lord, the same one after the crucifixion preached Him to the ends of the world. Innumerable martyrs were sacrificed, because they preferred to be put to death than to deny Christ, as the head Apostle had denied Him after being intimidated by a young maiden.
The amazing submission of the world to the Crucified Christ and His Apostles: Now, all the lands, all the cities, the deserted and the inhabited places, confess the Crucified Lord. On Him faith is placed by kings and generals, archons and consuls, slaves and freemen, unlettered and educated, the barbarians and the various nations of humanity. Even that small and insignificant tomb that received the blood stained and tortured body of the Lord is more valued than a thousand royal palaces and more venerable even to kings. What is even a greater paradox is the fact that what happened to the Lord also happened to His disciples. Because, those who were despised and imprisoned, those who were atrociously tortured and underwent innumerable martyrdoms, the very same ones, after their death, were more honored than the kings. Where do we see this? In Rome, the emperors, the consuls and the generals put aside all things and run to venerate the tombs of Peter the fisherman and Paul the tent maker. In Constantinople, those who bear diadems on their heads, wish to be buried next not close to the tombs of the Apostles but at the entrance of their temples. And so the kings become the doormen of the fishermen! Indeed, they are not ashamed for this, but boast about it, not only themselves but also their descendants.
Christ’s prophesy about the Church and its speedy fulfillment. When Christ’s disciples were only twelve and the Church was not in any one’s thought, when the Jewish synagogue was still flourishing and the impious idolatry dominated almost the entire world, the Lord had prophesied: “On this stone (i.e. on Peter’s confession of faith) I will build my Church, and the powers of Hades will not prevail against it” (Matthew 16:18). Do you realize the truth of this prophesy? Do you see its fulfillment? Think how important a fact is the spreading of the Church almost to the entire earth in a very brief span of time. Think how the life of so many nations changed and led to the faith so many peoples, how it abolished ancestral customs, how it liberated from age-long habits, how it scattered like dust the domination of pleasure and the power of sin, how it extinguished like smoke the foul smell of the sacrifices, the idolatrous ceremonies, the abominable feasts, the idols, the pagan altars and temples, how it erected sacred altars everywhere, in our land and in the lands of the Persians, the Scythians, the Africans and the Indians. What I say? Even in the British Isles, which are beyond the Mediterranean, in the ocean, the Church was spread and erected altars.
The superbly wondrous liberation and change that the Church induced in the world: The work of liberation of so many peoples from age-long shameful habits, as well as the change in the manner of life from an easier to a more difficult one, is indeed wondrous, or rather superbly wondrous. It is a proof of divine operation (energy), even if no one had opposed it, even if peace had prevailed and many had assisted. Because this spreading of the Church did not only come into collision with ancient habit, but also with pleasure, the happy manner of life. In other words, it had two powerful opponents, which tyrannized humanity: habit and pleasure. Whatsoever people had received, from centuries ago, from their fathers, their grandfathers and their ancient ancestors, even what they had received from the philosophers and the rhetoricians, all these things they agreed to despise, an attitude extremely difficult. Besides, they had to accept a new manner of life, which was indeed much more difficult; because she removed them from luxury and attached them to fasting. She removed them from avarice and led them to lack of property. She removed them from profanity and led them to chastity. She removed them from aggressiveness and led them to gentleness. She removed them from envy and led them to friendship. She removed them from an easygoing and pleasurable life and led them to a life of difficulties, hardships, and full of sorrows. Indeed she led to this life those who had been accustomed to the life of luxuries. Surely, those who became Christians were not people who lived in some other worlds and did not have sinful habits, but were those who had rotted in them and had become more flexible than clay. It was them that she called to follow the hard and ragged road. And it persuaded them to follow it!
The superbly wondrous work of the Twelve Apostles in the spreading of the Church. How many were persuaded? Not two, not ten, not twenty, not a hundred, but an innumerable crowd. And how many did she use to persuade them? She used two men, uneducated, uncultured, unknown, poor, without property, without bodily strength, without glory, without illustrious ancestry, without rhetorical eloquence. She used twelve men who were fishermen, tent makers, whose mother tongue was foreign; because, they did not speak the same tongue with the idolaters. They spoke Hebrew, which was different from all other languages. It was with them that the Church was built up and spread to the ends of the world. This is not the only wondrous fact, but there is also the fact that these few, these poor, these uneducated and despised men, who set out to change humanity, did not pursue their work without disturbance. They were confronted with innumerable wars from every side. They were opposed by every nation and in every city. But why do I speak of nations and cities? War was raised against them even on every house. Their teaching separated on many occasions the child from the father, the daughter in law from the mother in law, the brother from the brother, the servant from the master, the citizen from the ruler, the man from the woman, and the woman from the man. In every family not all believed simultaneously,, and so the Christians suffered daily harassments, ceaseless enmities, a myriad of deaths. All fought them as common opponents and enemies. They were pursued by kings, governors, citizens, freemen, slaves, crowds, cities. They did not pursue only them, but –how terrible– even the neophyte catechumens, i.e. those who just believed.
The victory of the Apostles and the Church is due to the power of the Crucified but also Risen Lord. It caused horror and wrath to the idolaters the thought of abandoning their pagan altars, of despising their bloody sacrifices, which all their fathers and ancestors practiced, and of believing in the Lord; of believing in Him who took flesh from the Virgin Mary, and stood trial before Pilate, and suffered numberless tribulations and degradations, underwent a dishonorable death, was buried and rose again. It is indeed a paradox, that, while the sufferings of the Lord were indisputable, -inasmuch as many had seen the lashings, the biting, the spitting, the slapping, the cross, the mocking, the entombment– it was not the same with the resurrection. The Lord, after his resurrection, manifested Himself only to the disciples. In spite of this fact, they spoke about the resurrection and persuaded the peoples and built up the Church. How did they do it? They did it with the power of the Lord, who sent them to preach his Gospel to the nations. It was He who opened to them the way. It was He who facilitated their difficult task. Had they not been assisted by the divine power, the spreading of Christianity would not have even begun.
The persecutions against the Church did not inhibit its expansion. The reason was that while the tyrants were forearmed against the Church, while the soldiers interposed their arms, while the mobs raged like a wild fire, while the bad habit was lined up in opposition, while orators, sophists, the rich people, ordinary citizens and leaders were aroused in enmity, the word of God, being stronger than the flame, turned the thistles into ashes, cleansed the fields and sowed the word of the preaching. Some of the believers were thrown into the prisons, others were exiled, others had their property confiscated, others were assassinated, and others were torn to pieces. In spite of the fact that Christians were treated as common criminals, suffering patiently every kind of punishment, humiliation and persecution, more and more people joined the Church. Indeed, the new believers not only were not discouraged by the tortures which they saw the older believers undergoing, but became more eager! They run by themselves, without constraint, showing gratitude to their torturers. They became more fervent in the faith, seeing the torrents of the blood of the believers.
The expansion of the Church in spite of the persecutions proves the incomparable and unconquerable power of Christ. Did you see the incomparable power of Him who achieved all these wonders? How is it possible that people who are undergoing such horrid martyrdoms feel no sorrow? And yet, they rejoiced, and were elated! This is what St. Luke the Evangelist adduces as an example, when he says about the Apostles that “they left from the council rejoicing, because they were proved worthy to be ill-treated for the shake of Christ” (Acts 5:41). While no one can build even a wall with stones and plaster when is persecuted, the Apostles built up the Church throughout the world while sufferings persecutions, imprisonments, exiles and deaths as martyrs. They did not build her up with stones, but with souls –which is much more difficult; since it is not the same to build a wall as to persuade perverted souls to change their manner of life, to abandon their demonic madness and to follow the life of virtue. They achieved this, because they had with them the unconquerable power of the Lord, who had prophesied; “I will build up my Church, and the powers of Hell will not prevail against her” (Matthew 16:18).
Consider how many tyrants fought the Church and how many persecutions they raised against it… Augustus, Tiberius, Gaius, Nero, Vespasian, Titus and their successors right down to Constantine, were all idolaters. All of them –some more moderately, and some more harshly– fought the Church. Even if some of them did not raise persecutions, nevertheless, their attachment to idolatry motivated those who wanted to flatter them to oppose the Church. In spite of all this, the evil schemes and attacks of the idolaters were dissolved as cobwebs, scattered like dust, vanished like smoke. Besides, what were planned against the Church became the occasion of great benefits for the Christians. The reason was that such plans created choruses of martyrs, who constitute the treasure, the pillars, and towers of the Church.
The wondrous fulfillment of what Christ prophesied about the Church reveals most clearly his true Godhead. Do you see the wondrous fulfillment of this prophesy? Indeed, “the powers of Hell cannot prevail against her.” Looking at what came to pass, believe what is to come. No one in the future will be able to prevail against the Church. If they did not manage to crush her when she numbered but a few members, when her teaching seemed novel and strange, when so many terrible wars and so many persecutions were raised against her from everywhere, much more they will not manage to injure her today, when she has spread in the whole world, and increased her dominion among all nations, abolishing their pagan altars and idols, their festivals and celebrations, the smoke and the smell of their abominable sacrifices. How did the Apostles achieve such a great, such an important task, after so many obstacles? Surely, it was by the divine and unconquerable power of Him, who prophesied about the creation and triumph of His Church. No one can deny this, unless he is mindless and completely unable to think."
(Translated and edited by Protopresbyter George Dion. Dragas, PhD, DD, DTh; This article represents selections from St. John Chrysostom’s treatise To Jews and Greeks, a demonstration, that Christ is God… (PG 48, 813-838); http://www.johnsanidopoulos.com/2009/10/triumph-of-church.html)