St. Nicholas Antiochian Orthodox Church
October 5, 2003
St. Nicholas Antiochian Orthodox Church
I am pleased to address you, the faithful members of the Fellowship of Orthodox Christians of Connecticut, at this annual gathering. Your exemplary work for the good of the Church, for the People of God, is well known. By your enthusiastic support of our youth through a variety of scholarship programs, by your witness to the unity of the Orthodox Church, and by the impact you have made in many other areas of ministry, you have embraced the call to Christian stewardship. Your willingness to sacrifice your time, to share your talents, and to offer of your treasures for the building up of the Body of Christ provides an example to all who labor in the vineyard of Our Lord.
Above all, your desire to put your faith into action reveals the very heart of Orthodox Christian life. In Scripture we read that “faith without works is dead.” Faith that does not reveal itself in action—in feeding the hungry, in clothing the naked, in ministering to all whose paths cross ours, and in reaching out to an ever-changing world with the changeless Gospel—is indeed dead. The Orthodox Faith is alive and active, not static or passive. It has the power to transform our words “about God” into a very experience “of God” and a taste of his divine glory and nature itself.
It is only by putting our faith into action that we are able to face the challenges of our time and in a world that is often referred to as “post-Christian.” While we clearly reject the very notion of a “post-Christian world”—Our Lord Himself promises that the gates of hell themselves are incapable of prevailing on the Church—we are increasingly aware of the fact that much of the world indeed rejects Christianity. Therecent incident involving the removal of the monument on which the Ten Commandments were inscribed, or the recent attempts by the European Union to remove any reference to that continent’s Christian roots, are but two reminders that not only Christianity, but I dare say Christ Himself, are under attack. While there are many who would contend that such things are the product of a thoroughly secular, post-Christian culture, such is clearly not the case, at least in our land. Nearly ninety percent of Americans claim belief in God, yet the numbers of individuals who see themselves as members of a faith community continues to decline. The vast majority of Americans claim to maintain a spiritual life, but the “spirit” around which their lives revolves is not necessarily the Holy Spirit. While most Americans claim that they pray regularly, a significant percentage decry public expressions of faith, especially Christian faith. Someone recently told me that our era is the “worst of times” as countless people wander through a spiritual dessert, not unlike the Hebrew people in the wilderness, hoping to find the promised land.
But even a quick review of the Church’s 2000-year history reveals that the “worst of times” can indeed be the “best of times.” The first three centuries of the Christian era could not have been worse for the infant Church, as the faithful lived under the constant threat of persecution—and yet the Church grew in ways that are nothing short of startling. Some four hundred years of marginalization and persecution at the hands of the Ottoman Turks not only failed to destroy the Church, but produced some of the most glorious saints and faithful witnesses. In our own time, nearly eight decades of brutal persecution at the hands of the godless communists failed to destroy the Church’s witness to the Gospel while producing countless witnesses who gave their lives for the sake of the Gospel. As Orthodox Christians in America, these periods in the life of the Church indeed can seem remote and infinitely distant, yet they serve as constant reminders that God, as we sing at Great Compline, truly is with us!
If the Church survived these “worst of times,” it is because the People of God, despite challenges to the contrary, simply and humbly continued to do what they have always been called to do: to remain united, to use God’s gifts for the building up, and even preservation, of the Church, and to minister to others in love, even in the face of death—in short, to put their faith into action in objective and tangible ways. There is a legendary story relating how, early on in the communist era, the Patriarch of Moscow had been asked, “What will happen to the Church after the last ‘babushka,’ the last ‘old lady,’ dies.” The Patriarch responded, “Therewill be another generation of old ladies to take their place.” Seven decades later, we can attest to the wisdom of his words, as today’s “babushki” were infants, or had yet to be born, when these simple yet prophetic words were uttered. While the “babushki” were hardly educated in the finer points of theology, it was their fearless love for the Church and their willingness to minister to others regardless of the consequences that enabled the Church to survive. Communism failed, just as the Ottoman Empire had failed some two centuries earlier, yet the Church survived and, even in our time, continues to grow.
Today, however, we face challenges that often are not obvious. The early Christians clearly knew their enemy: the Roman state. But in our time, the enemy is often elusive. Indeed, as Our Lord warned, there is much darkness that presents itself as light. Wolves indeed lurk in sheep’s clothing. The challenges we face in our land and in our time can be so subtle that we easily can become confused, or even deceived. To acknowledge a “post-Christian” era—one in which the very commandments are seen as irrelevant or outdated or passe—is synonymous with acknowledging that Christianity may have had some meaning in times past, but that 21st century humanity has evolved to some unspecified “next stage” in its spiritual development. The result of such thinking—and I assure you that there are many Americans who are convinced that such is the case—has given rise to everything from a fixation on political correctness to a complete redefining of the fundamental unit of society, the family. Many assert, as I mentioned earlier, that this is the result of secularization, of life without spiritual values; I would contend, however, that this is the result of a spiritual quest that finds its beginning and end in a spirit that is alien to God—or, put in different terms, in a spirit that is created after our image, rather than that of the One Who is Existence Itself.
The spirituality of our time seeks its fulfillment in what “I” want, what “I” like, what will make “me” happy, what helps “me to “get in tune” with “who I am.” It is a spirituality that is found everywhere, from the advice offered by Oprah and Doctor Phil to the proclamations of the seemingly endless parade of New Age gurus. Curiously, this quest for spirituality centers not on seeking the fullness of truth, but on determining whether any given spiritual path matches “my” personal beliefs or fulfills “my” wants and needs. Even the recent “Left Behind” series of books and films, while allegedly based on Scripture, betray a spirituality that is man-centered—“Where will ‘I’ be when the Second Coming occurs?”—rather than God-centered.
Jesus Christ did not take on our human nature to teach us how to be human. He did so to reveal that there is more to life than my happiness, my needs, my personal beliefs. He delivers a spirituality rooted in the Holy Spirit, that leads us through His death and resurrection to our heavenly Father. He challenges us to see with the eyes of faith while engaging in spiritual warfare against those things which blind us from recognizing His image and presence in “the least of the brethren.” He commissions us to be coworkers and fellow ministers with the apostles and saints in bringing the Good News of life beyond this fallen world, to put our faith into action as witnesses not of who “we” are but, rather, Who “He” is. While on occasion we may be tempted to flee the times in which we live, to do so—to bury the great gift which has been entrusted to us—is ultimately to betray our faith, to reduce Orthodox Christianity to mere pious platitudes incapable of producing action, much less of making an impact on a world which scurries about in search of spirituality apart from the Holy Spirit.
It is not uncommon for us to hear the call to “bring America to Orthodoxy” or to “bring Orthodoxy to America.” In response to Our Lord’s own command to “teach all nations,” this is quite natural. But before we can effect the “best of times” in these “worst of times,” we must struggle to overcome those obstacles that have prevented us from pursuing this most fundamental of evangelistic principles. And there are several obstacles, often of our own doing, that must be overcome if we are to turn our attention to quenching the spiritual thirst of our world, our society, our friends and family and neighbors.
As is well known, many have converted to Orthodox Christianity during the past two or three decades. But, as one historian recently noted, Orthodox Christianity has yet to make a dent in American society. Our lack of unity gives those on “the outside” the impression that the Orthodox Church is simply a fragmented collection of “branches” or “denominations,” not unlike American Protestantism with its over 400—and growing—“varieties.” The unique and somewhat unprecedented circumstances which brought about the fragmentation of the Church into different, and often competing, ethnic jurisdictions are, by and large, no longer a reality. Yet in many circles, the lack of Orthodox unity in America is not only seen as “the norm,” but serves as a means for preserving ethnic identity or cultural purity—as if these things have anything to do with the Church. If we seriously wish to bring America to Orthodoxy—and I surely do not question those who see this as an opportunity to put our faith into action—we must make Orthodoxy visible in America. The Standing Conference of Canonical Orthodox Bishops, International Orthodox Christian Charities, the Orthodox Christian Mission Center, and numerous other agencies and organizations have done an exemplary job in witnessing to the faith and the fullness of truth. But until the Church itself, and not just the organizations and agencies which support the Church, speaks with a single voice and mind, a certain degree of confusion will continue to reign, and Orthodox Christianity will continue to be misunderstood, misinterpreted, and far removed from what is referred to as “the American religious mainstream.”
Another obstacle that can prevent us from putting our faith into action is the tendency to withdraw into ourselves, to become so frustrated with the world that we turn to fundamentalism, to a romanticism for bygone days, or to the comfort that indeed is found in associating only with “our people.” I recently read an article by a well known Protestant author titled “Why I Would Never Become Orthodox.” While I certainly could not agree with most of what the author stated, his words did force me to think about how we present ourselves to others, and how and what others perceive about the Church could indeed lead them to agree with the author’s premise. On the one hand, we are called to feed the world with the written—and living—Word of God, yet we are often known only for our ethnic foods, and nothing more. We are called to proclaim the Good News to any and all who would listen, yet we still find Orthodox Christians who consider evangelization to be an “innovation borrowed from the Protestants.” We proclaim the fullness of truth, yet squabble over “traditionalism” and “liberalism,” as if there can be a “liberal” as opposed to a “traditionalist” expression of the fullness of truth! If the vast majority of Americans know little or nothing of us, me must honestly admit that it is because we have failed to make ourselves known to put our faith into action.
There are many other obstacles, internal and external, that we must overcome if we are to put our faith into action and transform these “worst of times” into the “best of times.” But, in conclusion, it seems to me that only if we would focus our spiritual eyes on one simple maxim, we would find that our actions, borne of faith, would bring about a truly bountiful harvest. The maxim to which I refer is this: At every moment of your life, ask yourself, “What does God want me to do right here, and right now.” It is precisely in this maxim’s simplicity that its tremendous wisdom is to be found. We have been placed here by God. He has, as Saint Paul writes, equipped us for the building up of His Body, the Church. He has blessed us as His chosen people, as a holy nation, and as a royal priesthood to proclaim the wonderful things He has done for us, as Saint Paul reminds the Corinthians. And indeed, He has done great things for us—things that strengthen us in our weakness, unite us in our disunity, and inject into our faith a zeal that prompts us to act in the time and place in which God has placed us. Can you imagine the impact we would have on this land if each one of us discerned what God wants us to do, right here and right now—and then went out and actually did it?! Can you sense the presence of the Holy Spirit Himself, Who leads us to discern our heavenly Father’s will for us, in such witness and action? Can you see with the eyes of faith the bountiful harvest that could be reaped if only our faith was transformed into action in our personal lives, in our families and communities, in our parishes, and beyond the walls of our parish churches into the very midst of our neighbors, our friends, and even our enemies?
It is my prayer that you—rather, it is my prayer that that all of us—will seek to discern the Lord’s will for us, His People, His Church, that being renewed in faith, we might bring about a renewal of the world through action, through love, and through our works of mercy. And it is my prayer that God will enable us to respond to the challenge which Saint Paul places before each and every one of us as Orthodox Christians: To be all things to all men that by all means, we might save some. Never forget, as Our Lord teaches, that the harvest is plentiful, but the workers are few. We have been called to action; I pray that, from this moment on, we will act in the name of the Father, Son and Holy Spirit, seeking not our own glory but, rather to glorify God. If all of us unite in this conviction and action, if all of us use every means God makes available to us, then by all means, some might be saved, and we will have transformed the worst of times into the very best!