Pilgrims from Paradise:
A couple of weekends ago, I was supposed to be part of a most remarkable evangelistic outreach in Oklahoma City. The Antiochian Orthodox Archdiocese in conjunction with Conciliar Media Ministries and Ancient Faith Radio launched the Discover Original Christianity campaign a couple months ago.
Oklahoma City was blitzed with radio ads, TV spots, billboards, newspaper ads promoting Orthodoxy as the original Christian faith. People were directed to a website that was developed for this outreach, http://www.tryorthodoxy.com, which I invite you to visit. It’s an excellent site.
Efforts culminated, as I say, a couple of weekends ago with four lectures given at St. Elijah Antiochian Orthodox Church. Father James Bernstein spoke on the Original Christian Gospel and the Original Christian Church. And I was blessed to speak on the Original Christian Scriptures and Original Christian Spirituality.
While I do not know the exact numbers, I do know that several hundred non-Orthodox attended to hear these talks. Many attended multiple sessions. It was quite thrilling to stand up in front of a large audience in an Orthodox Church, knowing that the majority of the faces looking back at me were not Orthodox Christians.
Followup classes were launched afterward, which will feed into St. Elijah’s ongoing, well-developed inquirers’ program. So I look forward with great anticipation to the ultimate results of Discover Original Christianity. But regardless of what happens in the future, the fact that the seeds of this precious faith were sown in so many people is enough to make me call it a glorious success.
I’m not sure that anyone planned on this, but the Gospel for that Sunday morning couldn’t have been more perfect for such a weekend. When I was asked to give the homily and looked up the text, I had to smile. The passage was Matthew 4:18-23.
And Jesus, walking by the Sea of Galilee, saw two brothers, Simon called Peter, and Andrew his brother, casting a net into the sea; for they were fisherman. Then He said to them, Follow me, and I will make you fishers of men. They immediately left their nets and followed Him. Going on from there He saw two other brothers, James the son of Zebedee, and John his brother, on the boat with Zebedee their father, mending their nets. He called them, and immediately they left the boat and their father and followed Him. And Jesus went about all Galilee, teaching in their synagogues, preaching the gospel of the kingdom, and healing all kinds of sickness and all kinds of disease among the people.
Can you imagine what it must have been like? Put yourself in the place of Peter, Andrew, James, and John. There you are, going about your normal daily work, just an ordinary day in the uneventful life of a poor fisherman. Then all at once, He’s standing there— the Teacher from Nazareth. And He looks at you and says, Stop what you’re doing. Come, follow me now, and I will make you fishers of men.
It’s hard to speculate what went on in their minds and hearts at that moment. From other passages of Scripture, we know that at least Andrew and Peter had previous encounters with Christ. Surely, all of them knew who Jesus was. But as he looked them in the eye and said, Come with me, something extraordinary moved within them.
There was no thought given to preparing themselves or putting their home affairs in order before they answered His call. Their response, the Scripture tells us, was immediate. They never looked back, and they never went back. From that day forward, their lives were given over to the Master and ultimately to His great commission.
Go therefore, and make disciples of all the nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, teaching them to observe all things that I have commanded you: and, lo, I am with you always, even to the end of the age. Amen.
I’ve had people say to me, “Oh, I’d have given anything to have been there with Christ, to hear that call from His lips, to look in His face, and to just give up everything for the sake of the Gospel. How incredible would that be?
But as I contemplated that Gospel passage, it occurred to me that Christ’s invitation to Peter, Andrew, James, and John, there on the Galilean shores, pales in comparison with the call each of us Orthodox Christians receives from Him on a regular basis.
It happens in every Liturgy. Coming through the Holy Doors, bearing the blessed chalice of the Eucharist, the priest cries: “In the fear of God, and with faith and love, draw near!” But at that moment, Christ is also speaking to us.
And He is saying so much more than “Follow me.” From within the chalice, His Body and Blood, the essence of His living presence, implore us “Please come to me, and let me live in you.” We are invited to do more than walk with Him. Our Lord comes to us, looking for a home—for a body, mind, heart, and spirit that will offer itself to Him for the living out of His life.
Now, what does Christ bring with Him when he takes up this residence in our hearts that we offer Him the opportunity to have? He brings all that He is. When he enters our bodies in the bread and wine, it is with more than just blessing or healing or guidance or forgiveness. The Christ, who comes to dwell in us, bears in His heart a divine commitment of unconditional love for all humanity.
As we receive His Body and Blood, Jesus weaves into the fabric of our being, His own absolute love and compassion for the world. We become the great heart that longs to save every soul. That is who we are. We cannot pick and choose which aspects of Christ’s life we shall receive, when we open our mouths for the Holy Eucharist.
Our Lord became one of us to save us. To be one with Him is to join in that work. To heed the call of the chalice, the call to oneness with Him, is to give ourselves to saving others. It cannot be put off or refused.
As soon as I say that, of course, I can feel people cringe. Actively sharing Christ with others just seems so scary to so many. Why is that? For some, it’s just ego. As St. Paul says, “The Gospel of Christ is foolishness to those in the perishing world”—1 Corinthians 1:18.
That implies, of course, that by opening our mouths to proclaim our love for Christ, we will appear foolish. And we don’t want people to have that impression of us. So to live Christ, we must die to our egos. To do that, we have to love Him and all those whom He loves more than ourselves.
As Orthodox Christians, a path of worship, prayer, and fasting is set before us that allows us to consistently offer ourselves to Christ and to cultivate a relationship with Him that transcends our selfishness. Unfortunately, we can twist and torture the practices of our faith and make them serve our self-centered designs.
We can practice Orthodoxy as a matter of pride and exclusive pride in our particular ethnic heritage; pride in the positions of power we hold in the Church or an influence we hold in the Church; pride in our own impeccable devotion to all the rules of Church decorum, fasting, prayer, etc.
We can be prim and proper Orthodox and be lifeless as stones. Where pride lives, love suffocates. And in Christ, there is no life without love. Thus, love must abandon ego in order to survive. The constant stream of self-directed thoughts and acts must dry up. That occurs when we turn our attention completely and totally outward; as the spiritual welfare of others becomes the burning desire in our hearts.
How do we develop that desire? By living our Orthodox life in repentance, with our pride in check. I found that the best remedy for pride is regular Confession and consistent, genuine, reliance on spiritual guidance. To habitually face our sins and to order our lives with the direction and blessing of a qualified spiritual Father or Mother, makes us smaller in our own eyes.
We begin to see that we are nothing without the grace of Christ, but we are helpless and lost. We survive only on his love and the love he expresses through the compassion and caring ones who bless our lives. As we begin to see ourselves this way, we become aware that we walk in a world of despair.
All around us are others who suffer from the emptiness, misunderstanding, rejection, aimlessness, and loneliness that pride and self devotion can bring. Those, who think themselves happy without Christ, are merely living an illusion—the illusion that human life can be lived individually and self-centeredly, without concern for our interrelationship with others and our responsibility toward them.
To come to the chalice of the Body and Blood of Christ is to deny that meaningless life and to look with Christ’s own pity on a broken world and to shoulder the burden of its healing. If we are unwilling to accept that responsibility, we do not come to the Eucharist in the fear of God and with faith and love. We come with reservations and qualifications that diminish its beauty and its power within us.
Now, I know that most Orthodox Christians long to be free of their egos and to love the world and to be instruments of Christ’s salvation. When it comes to sharing their faith, they’re shy. They don’t know how to approach people and engage them. When folks tell me this, I understand. Not everyone has the personality and spiritual gifts to be so aggressive. But they don’t need to be.
Since I’ve become Orthodox, it seems that God has led people to me much more often than he’s led me to them. I’m convinced that Orthodox Christians, who devotedly live their spiritual legacy, will find God bringing spiritually hungry seekers to them, asking them about what it means to be Orthodox.
Yet even when God opens those doors, many feel incapable of sharing their ancient and holy faith. They don’t feel like they can adequately explain their beliefs, their worship, or their sacramental and ascetic practices. They just don’t have the knowledge to explain the complexities of Orthodoxy.
But the truth is, Orthodoxy is the simplest faith in the world. When we understand that the purpose of everything we believe and do, in the Orthodox life, is to enter into oneness with God and with all humankind, explaining the various aspects of our faith becomes relatively easy. It doesn’t require a seminary education.
Over the coming podcasts, I’m going to examine the key elements of ancient and original Christianity in the light of oneness. When we understand the faith this way, sharing it is not so hard. And as my experience in Oklahoma City brought home to me, once again and quite powerfully, multitudes are longing to hear the simple truth of our holy faith.
We must all be lights and healers—the hands, feet, eyes, ears, and mouthpiece of our Lord Jesus Christ, who still works diligently to save the world.