|13 The Rich Young Ruler - December 3, 2006|
On the marquis of a nearby church it reads: “We welcome people of all orientations.” What it means, of course, is that people are welcome to become members of that church just as they are. No demands are placed on them to change their lifestyle. In this Church, this morning’s epistle lesson might well be taken to mean: don’t make demands on anyone or impose standards of discipline or moral codes. Tolerate “one another in love. Endeavor to keep the unity of the Spirit in peace.” They might even believe they are fulfilling the command to “love one another as Christ loved us” by not only welcoming people living so-called “alternative life-styles,” but even going so far as to bless the so-called unions of these “alternative life-styles.”
In the climate of relativism that has settled on our human society, truth is measured by consensus, right and wrong by the latest Gallup poll. So much of what goes by the name of Christianity has become nothing more than the religious form of this general relativism. The teachings of the bible are reduced to “what it means to me.” The truth of God is “whatever I take him (or her) to be.” Morality is whatever seems right to the majority or to me. No one church possesses in itself the fullness of God. Each church, rather, is a “denomination,” a branch of some mystical tree that exists in the world only in its many branches, the many denominations of the church; each branch, each denomination possessing but a part of the fullness of truth.
In this climate of relativism, both moral and religious, the Orthodox Church is truly a stranger – and an offensive stranger at that. For the Orthodox Church, the truth is neither relative nor subjective. The truth is the Lord Jesus Christ as he truly is, not as I take him to be. The truth of the bible is found in the Lord Jesus Christ as he truly is. It is not found in what the bible means to me. For the Orthodox Church there is only one life-style that leads to life: the life of chastity, of humility and repentance, and of moral purity. For the Orthodox Church, love is not tolerance of other points of view or alternative life-styles. It is love of the truth. And we do not fashion the truth. We receive it from God. And if we do not receive it, we perish.
For the Orthodox Church, the “mystical Church” of Christ is not divided into many denominations. We are not each one our own Church, nor are there many Churches. There is no other Church but the one, holy, catholic and apostolic Church. She exists in her fullness in the concrete institutions of the ecclesial, hierarchical, liturgical and sacramental structures of the Orthodox Church. How far she extends beyond the concrete institutions of the Orthodox Church is not ours to say. The holy fathers say that God is love, and wherever the love of God is practiced, there God is present. We do not say that the Spirit of God is confined to the concrete institutions of the Church, for we pray to the Heavenly Spirit who is everywhere present and who fills all things. But we do believe from the testimony of the martyrs and saints if not from our own experience that the fullness of God dwells bodily in the liturgical, sacramental and hierarchical institutions of the Orthodox Church. There is no truth outside that is not inside the Church’s sacramental and hierarchical institutions.
Some may find this an offensive claim; but we are not free to tweak it to make it suit our tastes, or to change the Church’s teaching so that it conforms to what we think will be more attractive to the world. Our own views are not the measure of truth. What the bible means to me is not the standard we follow; what I think God is like or what is pleasing to him is not the measure of our understanding of God.
Last month Pope Benedict spoke to several dozen top theologians crowded into a Vatican chapel for a 730 am mass. In what he said to those theologians he expressed faithfully the mind of the Church: “Speaking just to find applause or to tell people what they want to hear…is like prostitution,” he said. “Don’t look for applause, but look to obey the truth.”
For the faithful Orthodox Christian, Christ is the ‘measure’ of God; and the Church is Christ’s body. She is the fullness of him who is all in all. In the Creed that we say at every Divine Liturgy, we say that we believe in this Church, just as we say we believe in God the Father, Son and Holy Spirit. That means that we lay aside our own ideas and opinions, our own likes and dislikes in order to submit body, soul and mind to the Church’s guidance, to her teaching, to her spiritual disciplines, for we believe that in her we come upon the mystery of God in Christ, in whom the fullness of God dwells bodily.
The Orthodox Church, too, welcomes people of all orientations. Indeed, Christ came into the world not to call the ‘righteous’ but to call sinners to repentance. But the point is that he came to call them to repentance, not to leave them as they are in their alternative life-styles and their darkened understandings that lead to separation from God and death. In the Church, as the Lord himself says to the self-righteous: “Prostitutes and publicans (those engaged in alternative life-styles) are entering the Kingdom of Heaven before you are.”
They are entering when the self-righteous are not because the self-righteous are those who have fallen in love with the wisdom of their own opinions on God, on man, on spirituality and who therefore follow after the god they themselves have fashioned in the wisdom of their own opinions. The prostitutes and publicans, those living alternative life-styles, are entering when the self-righteous are not because they are taking up the cross of Christ. They are crucifying the desires of the flesh to Christ’s cross and leaving their alternative life-styles behind by submitting in humility and meekness to the spiritual disciplines of the Church, which leads them onto the path of repentance.
To become a member of the Orthodox Church, a communicant of Christ’s precious body and blood, we don’t have to be perfect. Indeed, we are taught in the Orthodox Church to stand in prayer before God as “the first of all sinners.” In this attitude of contrition and repentance, we submit to the Church’s direction. She will help us reach that point where we can be liberated from the power the pleasures of the world’s alternative life-styles have over us, where we are able to sell all that we have with gladness, to re-orient our orientations and to bring our alternative life-styles into line with the life-style of the Holy Spirit.
We can illustrate why the Orthodox Church takes so seriously the importance of submitting to her spiritual disciplines by looking at the icon drawn by the teaching of the bible on what salvation is and how we are saved.
It says that in the beginning the earth was without form and void, and darkness covered the face of the deep. Imagine a hole in the ground. Now, take away the bottom of the hole; take away the sides of the hole. What do you have left? Absolutely nothing. That’s where we came from. At the core of our existence, we are nothing. The world and everything in it, at its core, does not really exist; it is nothingness. Only God truly is. We exist only by the will of God. Between us who are nothing and God who alone truly is, there is a bottomless abyss of absolute nothingness. If we are to live truly, we have to pass over that abyss that has no bottom and no sides and onto the other side where God is in his Heavenly Kingdom.
Our liturgical texts tell us that the Theotokos is the Bridge that bridges the abyss to heaven. The Cross, too, is called a bridge, and also a ladder to heaven. The way across the abyss is the way of the Theotokos, saying no to the riches of the world that we might say yes to God. This is the way of the Church. It is the way of the Cross: crucifying our self-will, our own ideas, likes and dislikes to the Cross of Christ and submitting to God as did the Theotokos. In saying no to the world and yes to God with the Theotokos, we take up our cross and we begin following Christ.
We say yes to God and take up our cross by submitting to the spiritual disciplines of the Church. Through these disciplines, the Church enables us to sell all our riches that separate us from God. These riches that separate us from God, in the spiritual tradition of the Orthodox Church, are the passions: gluttony, lust, anger, greed, envy, vanity, pride and despair; all of them rooted in self-love.
As we take up our Cross and crucify the desires of our flesh with the help of the Church, the Church guides us through her spiritual disciplines into the temple with the Theotokos, into the cave or the sanctuary of our heart, and prepares us to become like her a beautiful dwelling place of God. When God sees that we have truly sold all that we have and truly do love him with all our heart, soul, strength, and mind, he himself passes over the abyss and comes to us to be born in the cave of our heart. Actually, the story of the Prodigal Son tells us that as soon as we turn around and begin making our way back to him – even long before we have reached that point where we are able to sell all that we have for his sake – he immediately rushes out to meet us, to embrace us in the warmth and beauty of his holy Church and to lead us on the better and changeless path that ascends over the abyss to God. By his grace, he gives us strength to practice his commandments and to live more and more according to the life-style of his Holy Spirit. As we experience more and more the depth and breadth, the length and height of his love and goodness and beauty, we are made able with gladness to sell the one thing that yet separates us from God: our self-love. We ascend the Cross with him, and in union with him on his Cross we die in what the Church calls the Spiritual marriage. Through our death in the Lord, we are taken over the abyss and we are born again, from above, in his Heavenly Kingdom as children of God, living no more our own life but his life. We find ourselves among the saints in whom God rests. With the saints, the prophets and the apostles and with his Holy Mother, we are all granted to become one body in the one Spirit of the one Lord and to live in the one God and Father of all who is above all and through all and in all.
It is this hope of being found in Christ who takes us across the abyss that calls out to us to crucify our own ideas, our own likes and dislikes, our own will and to submit humbly and meekly to the spiritual disciplines and teachings of the Church that she, as the very body of Christ and the fullness of him who is all in all, may guide us over the abyss and into God’s heavenly kingdom. We love one another in Christ not by tolerating alternative life-styles or by honoring different religious views but by submitting ourselves body, mind and soul to the commandments of Christ and to the life-style of his holy Church in whom the fullness of God dwells bodily. It is in the one mind of Christ, not our own mind, that we confess Father, Son and Holy Spirit the Lord and enter into the love of God, which is centered not on the wisdom of our own opinions, but on the grace of Christ in the love of God the Father through the communion of the Holy Spirit. The bond of peace that unites us is not the tenuous peace of the world that comes from tolerating alternative life-styles or entertaining the wisdom of human ideas. It is the peace of Christ that is not of this world. It truly is peace because it truly exists. It is rooted not in the abyss but in God. And it comes only to those who in faith and love submit to the ways of God, to die in him to the alternative life-styles of the world and to be born from above to live in the life-style of God, the only life-style that has real existence.