I meant to post this yesterday, but I slept rather poorly Sunday night and was just too tired. Ah well, here’s yesterday’s post–hopefully I get a second one out later today.
Not without merit, it seems that the best evidence against the truth of the Gospel is the lives of Christians. Having spent the last 10+ years as a priest serving missions and as an interim pastor, I have come to see not only the best of what there is among Orthodox Christians, but also, I almost said, especially, the worst.
It amazes me, for example, that people can be so attached to their vision of how a parish is supposed to be, that they would rather see a community fail rather than change (forgetting for a moment as St Gregory Nyssa reminds us, the ability to change–and change often–is what makes it possible for human beings to become like the God Who changes not).
In my conversations with people–not only those aren’t Orthodox Christians, but with those who have fallen away from the Church–the character of those who profess to be Orthodox Christians is without a doubt the single biggest complaint about the Church. “We have met the enemy,” the comic strip character Pogo says, “and he is us.”
The fact of the matter is, it often it is the behavior Christians that makes it the Gospel hard to believe. And this is not an unreasonable response, after all Jesus tells us:
“You are the salt of the earth; but if the salt loses its flavor, how shall it be seasoned? It is then good for nothing but to be thrown out and trampled underfoot by men. “You are the light of the world. A city that is set on a hill cannot be hidden. Nor do they light a lamp and put it under a basket, but on a lampstand, and it gives light to all who are in the house. Let your light so shine before men, that they may see your good works and glorify your Father in heaven.” (Mt 5.13-16)
And, in another place, he says to us who are the light of the world, that our office carries with it great responsibility:
“Whoever receives one little child like this in My name receives Me. Whoever causes one of these little ones who believe in Me to sin, it would be better for him if a millstone were hung around his neck, and he were drowned in the depth of the sea. Woe to the world because of offenses! For offenses must come, but woe to that man by whom the offense comes!” (Mt 18:5-7)
So close is the relationship between the validity of the preaching of the Gospel and the character of Christians that the Apostle Paul goes so far as to say of his own spiritual children:
Do we begin again to commend ourselves? Or do we need, as some others, epistles of commendation to you or letters of commendation from you? You are our epistle written in our hearts, known and read by all men; clearly you are an epistle of Christ, ministered by us, written not with ink but by the Spirit of the living God, not on tablets of stone but on tablets of flesh, that is, of the heart (2 Cor 3:1-3).
And yet, so often, we are ourselves rather poorly written letters for the very faith we will often profess with such fervor. To be very direct about it, the longer I am a priest, the more I come to appreciate Paul’s comment that “we have this treasure in earthen vessels, that the excellence of the power may be of God and not of us” (2 Cor 4.7).
Listening to the music, seeing the beauty of icons and vestments, that in fact the Church is filled with sinners. And not simply sinners in the sense that we are all sinners and “fall short of the glory of God” (Rms 2.23). Rather, there are in the Church men and women, and yes sometimes every clergy and bishops, who are sinners in the stronger sense to the word: Those who have not in fact repented and look to the Gospel not for salvation, but only for their own self-aggrandizement.
And, in a sense, this is in fact as God intends the Church to be.
St Gregory the Great in his homily on the parable of the wedding feast tells his listeners:
The character of those at the banquet reveals clearly that the king’s marriage feast represents the Church of this time, in which the bad are present along with the good. The Church is a thorough mix of various offspring. It brings them all to faith but does not lead them all to the liberty of spiritual grace successfully by changes in their lives, since sin prevents it.
This is the state of affairs in the Church I think for two reasons–one the one hand, who else would Christ call into the Church but sinners? If, as St Gregory implies, God calls sinful humanity into the Church to heal us of our sins and to make us free, then we ought to expect at least a certain number of, well, failures in the mix of people.
But, and this is the second reason, the division between repentant and unrepentant sinners is a line that runs right through the center of the human heart, through my heart. St Gregory’s words about the Church are also applicable to my own heart:
As long as we are living in this world we have to proceed along the road mixed together. We shall be separated when we reach our goal. Only the good are in heaven, and only the bad are in hell. This life is situated between heaven and hell. It goes on in the middle, so to speak, and takes in the citizens of both parts.
Not only the human family, but each human heart–and by this I again mean my own heart–is situated between heaven and hell. Or maybe more accurately, my heart contains within itself both heaven and hell being itself a citizen of both realms.
In our catechesis and preaching about the Church we need to be very careful that we not deny that the Church is a hospital for sinners. But we also need to be careful that, the acknowledgment that we are sinners is not an excuse to tolerate.
It is actually reported that there is sexual immorality among you, and such sexual immorality as is not even named[a] among the Gentiles—that a man has his father’s wife! And you are puffed up, and have not rather mourned, that he who has done this deed might be taken away from among you. For I indeed, as absent in body but present in spirit, have already judged (as though I were present) him who has so done this deed (1 Cor 5:1-3).
The shortcomings of Christians, especially my own, should fill us as Paul says with grief. We certainly should not respond with indifference, much less any attempt to offer a justification since “After all, we’re all sinners.”
When we do this, when we fail to take seriously the shortcomings of those of us who have been called to the wedding feast of the King, we overlook the end of the parable:
But when the king came in to see the guests, he saw a man there who did not have on a wedding garment. So he said to him, ‘Friend, how did you come in here without a wedding garment?’ And he was speechless. Then the king said to the servants, ‘Bind him hand and foot, take him away, and cast him into outer darkness; there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth.’ For many are called, but few are chosen (vv. 11-14).
St Gregory sees in the guest without a wedding garment a figure of the baptized Christian who comes to the Church without love in his heart. While such a person “may have faith” his lack of love shows that he rejects the example of Christ Who makes manifest God’s love for us. For this reason Gregory warns his listeners:
[Since] you have already come into the house of the marriage feast, our holy Church, as a result of God’s generosity, be careful my friends, lest when the King enters he find fault with some aspect of your heart’s clothing. . . . We are correct when we say that love is the wedding garment because this is what our Creator himself possessed when he came to the marriage feast to join the Church to Himself.
I will be the first to admit that sometime the hardest place to hold on to those three things that last, faith, hope and love, is in the Church. One of the hardest Gospel truths to accept is that the Church is simply the world on the road to the Kingdom of God.
And it is so hard is it to believe this that we simply allow this reality to fade from our awareness. But when we do, we find ourselves either falling into a triumphalism that denies any problems in the Church (and ultimately, in myself) OR a despair that causes me to withdraw spiritually and psychologically and, eventually, physically, from the Church. But, in either case, my actions cede victory not only to the Enemy of souls, and leave my neighbor, and me, trapped in the very sinfulness that I find so offensive and faith destroying.
When I turn my back on the Church, I refuse from the Great King the wedding garment He offers me–I refuse to enter into my Lord’s joy. Yes, there are sinners in the Church, but no, not all sinners are equal. To say otherwise is an offense against the Gospel.
But when I am confronted by the truth of sinful Christians, I need to find in myself the courage, the strength and fortitude, to say nothing of wisdom, prudence and charity, to respond effectively in the face of human failure. I have to avoid equivocation, but also harshness.
Speaking simply for myself, I have learned that I need to listen very carefully to precisely those areas where my faith is most challenged, and even damaged, by the misdeeds of Christians. Again in my experience at least, it is precisely in those areas where faith proves weakest in me that I have discovered God’s invitation to me to take on new forms of ministry and to a experience new depth of faith.
So we should let ourselves be appalled, hurt, disappointed, angry, doubting–we ought not to deny any of this. But we also shouldn’t stop there, but rather by God’s grace and by our own efforts, we should push on and through the darkness that falls upon us and there, in the darkest moments of our experience, we will find Christ as the light Who shines in the darkness.
What trips us up in the Church is not so much that there are sinners in the Church, but our unwillingness to work to heal the wounds that sin inflict upon us and others. I give up too easily, I am too willing to let the unrepentant among us drive me away or keep me quiet.
But when this happens, then haven’t I simply cast off the wedding garment of the King?