What is the Priority?
Xριστός Aνέστη. I’d like to begin this morning by reminding you of something that I’ve said before. For the Early Church, as far back as the first century and for us today, there was and is nothing as important as being in Christ. That means being in His Church, baptized, being sanctified, and responding to His grace with every other virtue that Christians are called to adopt as we adapt to a new way of living. The gospel readings that we’ve heard and that we’ll continue to hear all speak of the same thing: turning from your old ways, accepting baptism, and then letting your life reflect that new way of living. It is His road that we walk when we carry our cross, when we surrender to His call to serve Him, when we admit that we are weak and need God to help us, just as Simon of Cyrene helped Christ carry His Cross.
So, let me say it again: for the Early Church, the Church meant everything. Nothing has changed. It is where we meet Christ – where two or three are gathered in His Name. It is where we are strengthened with others and find purpose: “For I know the plans I have for you,” declares the Lord, “plans to prosper you and not to harm you, plans to give you hope and a future.” It is where we hear Christ speaking to us through the Gospel, as He says, “These are the words which I spoke to you, while I was yet with you, that all things must be fulfilled…concerning me.” It is where we receive Christ – this is My Body, this is my Blood. You cannot do that at home. We can and should pray at home but there is nothing like worship in the Orthodox Church; there is no substitute or acceptable way to be in Christ if you don’t want to be with other Christians, to contribute to them and to benefit from them. Imagine any other area of life, whether at home, at work or a hobby that you sought to excel at without learning or growing from others. Imagine an athlete never competing, a musician never performing with others, an artist never looking at the works of the masters, or, better yet, a married person never wanting to be with their loved one. This is what the Christian without the Church is: an isolated and ineffective person uninterested in growing.
I mentioned a few weeks ago that I had a conversation with some young adults who spoke about the Church as if it’s only purpose for existing was to make them feel good about themselves. Notice, though, that the Bible never talks about feeling good about Church. Actually, quite the opposite is true. They usually suffered as members of Christ’s Church. The young adults are not alone in this. Most adults and certainly most children have the idea that Church is supposed to make us feel good. The reality is that, if I were doing my job well, you might actually feel bad about evil in the world and even about your own sin. My goal today, though, is to say that despite our collective sin, the distance, despite all the years that have passed and the cultural changes that have happened over 2,000 years, Jesus Christ is still calling you to seek Him, to look at Him and His perfect life as a model for your own, and to bring health, well-being, and strength to His Body, which is the Church.
Unlike some other Christians that speak of personal or individual relationships with God, we Orthodox always think and pray in terms of we and us. If we are to truly mean it when we call ourselves brothers and sisters in Christ, what would it mean for us if we are not concerned with the salvation of our spiritual siblings? What does it say about us when we only think in terms of ourselves?
St. Paul calls the faithful to be members of the Body of Christ, just like an arm or leg is part of a human body. Once you make relationships at church, you are forever bonded like members of the same family. You drink from the same cup, you fast from the same foods, you sing the same prayerful hymns that your ancestors may have sung for 80 or 90 generations. And they did it through persecutions, genocides, and wars like we’ve never known. Think about how powerful that is. They did that for you. They gave this Church to you so that you would know God and the Saints as they knew them, and that you would find the same comfort and strength that they found.
One of my favorite Aesop’s fables to this day, a story that I feel describes so many people, is the Tortoise and the Hare. You know the lesson: slow and steady wins the race but, beyond that, you could also attribute some other qualities to the tortoise that might benefit us: perseverance even against terrible odds, determination, hard work, confidence, and a strong desire for the prize. For us, that prize is nothing less than salvation, eternal life with God, and for us, it all begins here in His holy Church. Xριστός Ανέστη.