Monday, May 26, 2008

What He Said

How do we as Orthodox Christians relate to other Christians who are not Orthodox?

This is an important question, I think. At least it has been on my mind much recently as I have spent (way too much) time in the blogosphere, noting just how it is that we Orthodox relate to other Christians who are not Orthodox. Some do it well - others do less well - still others do it poorly.

And because it has been so much on my mind, it was a blessing to me that this topic came up in my priest's sermon yesterday. He addressed it very well - far better than I ever could - and so I will share here some of his comments about this subject - comments which I found so helpful.

(Note that these are simply excerpts from this sermon, obviously not the entire sermon itself. These comments were made in the context of my priest's sermon on the Gospel reading yesterday about the Samaritan woman at the well. I have pulled these comments from that context, but I don't believe that the meaning or intent of the comments is changed or reduced as they stand alone. I would, however note that they were even more powerful in their complete original context. It was a darn good sermon, all the way around.)

... So to be Orthodox – to be a member of the True Church – is not to know that you are in the perfect church. To be a member of the True Church is to know that you are hopelessly broken until God fulfills the mystery of his church in the Kingdom. That’s important for our thinking in the society of religious diversity that we live in. In Revelation we see this image: "I, John, saw the Holy City, the New Jerusalem coming down out of heaven from God, prepared as a bride adorned for her husband.”

This is imagery that has been with us since holy Week. It's imagery that helps us as modern American Christians to really think honestly about what it means to be an Orthodox Christian communicant in a human community where not only is there diversity of religion and non-religion, but where Christianity itself is so fragmented.

... We tend to worry, as Orthodox Christians, because we see the kind of extreme expressions in our community of faithful which get extremely rigorous – judgmental of everybody else – you might say fundamentalist, as though here in the church there is life and everywhere else there is complete and unadulterated darkness – and is a kind of fanaticism. That exists wherever there is covenantal language, not just in Orthodoxy. Wherever there is language of exclusive covenant, if we don’t hear it carefully, we do become sort of fanatical extremists, if you like. But really for most Orthodox Christians, that's not our problem. Our problem is really the opposite problem. We're common sense people – we’re all grown ups, as they like to say - and we look around ourselves and we see people who are not Orthodox who are holier, who pray more, who live the gospel more and even people who are not associated with religion who do the same and we have to understand that all in the context of a church that presents to us consecrated and covenanted life with God – with his Word.

... The word of God, [Isaiah says in the service of Vespers of Mid-Pentecost], is like rain. For rain and snow come down from heaven and don't go back to heaven without first watering the earth, making it bring forth and sprout, giving seed to the sower and bread to the eater... The word of God has come down, it has permeated the people, things have grown... "And so shall my word be that goes forth from my mouth. It will not come back to me empty." In other words, evaporating and going back up into the clouds, to use modern science. "But it will first accomplish that which I intended it to. My word will soak into the ground wherever it is and prosper according to the purpose for which I sent it." ... What we’ve been told here is that the Word of God (and we talk about the Holy Spirit this way – it’s everywhere present and fills all things) does not belong to the Church or the confines of the Church. God's will, his intention for human beings, is poured out on the whole of creation. Therefore, we as Orthodox communicants, if we see it anywhere and do not recognize it for what it is then we have desecrated the Word of God. It doesn’t help to say, “I'm Orthodox, I don’t need to pay attention to what that person is praying or what their faith is, because if they are praying from this permeated rain, this soaked rain, if they have found the language for God that comes from this biblical revelation, then first of all we should at least recognize what we hear.

... The Word of God is the Bridegroom and we, the Church, are meant to be completely under its authority. And that is how a gospel like today's is meant to reinforce both our consecrated-ness to the Word of God to remind us that our experience of the Gospel is an intimacy, consecrated, and closed-off within our hearts. And yet, from that intimacy comes the knowledge that this Word of God in which we seek covenant is poured out on everyone. So our real danger as modern Orthodox Christians is not so much in becoming narrow-minded fanatics – it happens – but it’s much more that we lose that sense of intimacy, of consecrated-ness, of necessarily affirming and rejoicing in every yearning - every thirst - for the Word of God that we see wherever we see it. Not with condescension but with humility – because where we see thirst it always judges us for not thirsting enough. It's not that you condescend to those "heretics" or whatever. You see them and you are humbled and crushed and brokenhearted because thirst is thirst – and if you see someone thirsting for the Word of God, whatever the setting is [it judges] you for your lack of thirst. That is how we relate to other Christians if we are relating Biblically and in an Orthodox way. And that is how we relate, of course, to one another in the church because we are all struggling in the church.

Coming soon (I hope): What does "What He Said" have to do with "What She Said"?


William Weedon said...

Does the Word of God, poured out so richly and lovingly, only stir up thirst, or does it also slake thirst? And if it slakes the thirst, by delivering the Gift that it contains, then there is cause for rejoicing indeed. And then you might understand how for us the borders of the true Church are as expansive and free as the work of that Word to deliver the Gift!

-C said...

I cannot answer this question from anyone's perspective but my own.

For me at this point in my life, the Word of God given as richly and abundantly as it is, creates a deeper thirst for God.

And I find this thirst to be a gift in itself.

Mimi said...

I really like your priest's thoughts.

Emily H. said...

"You see them and you are humbled and crushed and brokenhearted because thirst is thirst – and if you see someone thirsting for the Word of God, whatever the setting is [it judges] you for your lack of thirst."

That reminds me of something I've read from the Desert Fathers. I suppose the key is humility.

Thanks for sharing these excerpts, -C. (Do you have a link to the whole sermon so we can read it in context also?)

-C said...

I've posted it for you here, Amily.