One of the great strengths and delights of St Aidan’s Church is its diversity, with all manner of cultures and ages, but a place where we are first and foremost Orthodox Christians. We have an expression and it comes from a dream vision in the book of the prophet Daniel, “to have feet of clay.” It means to be less than perfect, to have some fault or weakness especially in someone who is proud or arrogant. However, we have more than feet of clay; we share the earthy nature of all humanity. St Paul in his second letter to the Corinthians talks about “treasure in earthen vessels”. Yet as St Paul reminds us in the reading today we have to put aside the old nature. We are - after all - members of the Body of Christ, sanctified by the Holy Spirit. The call is to refuse to conform to the world’s ways, and the struggle between holiness and convenience is never changing.
Life as a Christian is a paradox. We receive a great blessing, and yet we are also afflicted along with all mankind by the worries and struggles of life and sometimes by the very nature of the blessing itself. It would be highly arrogant of us to think we suffer in the same way that our brothers and sisters do in some parts of the world. We hear stories of the victimisation of Christians, of abductions, murders, of property and Churches being damaged or destroyed. By comparison we face a degree of irritation, although some Christians have had big problems at work with wearing crosses, or refusing to do certain tasks at work because of their faith. This was brought home this week by cases decided in European Court of human Rights.
I do not feel competent to comment on the cases that have cropped up. The issues are usually rather more complicated than the headlines, or even the news reports are likely to suggest. It is now apparent that applying certain overtly Christian values in some jobs is effectively outlawed and unless people act as if they take a secularist line on certain issues they cannot be employed in those jobs. Sadly there are active campaigners for an avowedly atheistic view as being the only way forward. Such a tendency needs to be resisted of course; it is pernicious and evil.
So, how do we cope? We simply buy the same foods as everyone else, we see the same films, watch the same television, go to the same pubs, we play the same sports. Yet there are also points of conflict. Some films we may avoid; some activities we will find distasteful or need to avoid. The secularist way is to treat belief as a private matter, with no impact on social relations. According to this view we are forced to suppress our beliefs where these conflict with secularism. For example, nurses are expected to do this when dealing with patients. They simply cannot make their faith apparent to patients without losing their jobs, and so religious discussion is effectively outlawed in hospitals. We are told not to judge, but we also find ourselves put in the position of having to deal with issues such as Sunday working because employers may demand that we work shifts on the Sabbath. Morality, they say, is a public matter and our religion is merely private and has nothing to do with how society is run. How wrong they are!
Sometimes this conflict is attributed by secularists to Christians being difficult. Wearing crosses visibly is one such example. To display a symbol of one’s faith is not unreasonable. However, the Orthodox Church, whilst teaching that the believers should always wear their baptismal crosses, nonetheless does not insist that these should be worn visibly. There are other examples of these problems in Christian history. Under the Roman Empire many Christians died because they refused to offer incense on an altar before a statue of Caesar. This was seen as a matter of civil disobedience by the authorities. The point here is that incense was seen as an offering to a deity. If you offered incense in such a situation you would be accepting the divinity of Caesar, and that was to deny the one true God. I am sure many who did make the offering did not really believe Caesar to be a god but they apostasised nonetheless in order to avoid martyrdom.
Historically Christianity has not picked fights but we do know when to draw the line. Some things we can tolerate, even if we do not approve of them. The Church does not bless certain relationships for instance, although it does not stop us loving the people in them, without any sense at all of being judgemental. These questions are sometimes subtle and tricky. Pastorally the Church is always there to help and guide - after the example of Christ Himself, in confession, counselling and practical support.
Our lives of course should always demonstrate the truth of Christ in us and so to the world around us. Freeing ourselves from the passions, from disordered ways of thinking about the world and from damaging behaviours makes us more perfect and allows God to move more in our lives. Of course we fail, we experience anger and temptation. We are less than fully truthful, we lapse, yet there is constantly the call to repent, to turn back to God. We can show the love of God to people in our dealings with them but without compromise of our faith and life. Some things, of course, we must continue to reject while waiting for society to catch up. Where we do make our stand and on what basis is a matter for each one of us to determine, in the light of the Gospel, the Tradition of the Church and guided both by conscience and our spiritual parent.
In all of this Christ comes first and He cannot be reduced to distinctions of, nationality, history, or culture. In the end we are citizens first and foremost of the Kingdom of Heaven. This is how St. Paul puts it:-
“...you have put off the old man with his deeds, and have put on the new man who is renewed in knowledge according to the image of Him who created him, where there is neither Greek nor Jew, circumcised nor uncircumcised, barbarian, Scythian, slave nor free, but Christ is all and in all.” (Colossians 3:9b-11)
That is the challenge that Christ lays before us. He needs to be the Lord of each and every part of our lives. There is no compromise possible in the end. Such is the Christian challenge and such is our calling. May He continue to give us the grace to live that way.