Fulfilling Our Mission as Orthodox Christians

June 30, 2019 Length: 24:56

On the Feast of All Saints of North America, Fr Thomas reminds us of our Apostolic mission and how to meet the unprecedented challenges facing us in the 21st century.


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In the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen! Glory to Jesus Christ! [Glory be forever!]

You remember last week we celebrated the feast of All Saints. This week, we look even more locally. We look to our own land of North America, and we celebrate the growing number of All Saints of North America. So the Gospel reading and the epistle reading will give us important direction – an important understanding – about why we celebrate and how, and what the implications are of celebrating this feast today.

And I want to talk about how the Church is Apostolic, the Church is local, and the Church is transformative – Apostolic, local, and transformative. And the first certainly is from the Gospel reading this morning. We hear the First-Called Apostle Peter, and yesterday we celebrated the feast of Peter and Paul. It’s interesting that we celebrate both Peter and Paul together, because there was really an argument – a disagreement – in the early Church: who is greater, Peter the first among the apostles or Paul who accomplished the most among the apostles? And to settle this disagreement – and even Peter and Paul in the book of Acts have a disagreement – we celebrate them together. The icon is always shown of them embracing one another, and after that feast of Saints Peter and Paul, we celebrate today the synaxis, the gathering, the celebration, of all twelve Apostles.

And so, this idea that the Church is Apostolic is certainly nothing new to us. We say it in the Creed, right? I believe in one, one Church. I believe that the Church is Holy: one, holy, catholic – which means full, complete, lacking nothing. I believe in one, holy, catholic, and Apostolic Church. And this idea that the Church is Apostolic is fundamental to us. What that means is we don’t simply take the Bible and read it for ourselves to decide how the Church should be. We read the Scriptures in light of the Apostolic Tradition, which is given to us. And this Apostolic Tradition is so important, that it literally is not just about how we do Church on earth. We talked about this last week. We said that the Church is one: the Church in heaven and the Church on earth, it is one Church. It’s fascinating!

Look at the book of Revelation. In the 21st chapter, the book of Revelation is the vision that Saint John the Apostle has of the Church as it exists in the fullness of the Kingdom of God. And what it says is, when he sees at the end of time the Heavenly Jerusalem, the Heavenly City, it says, coming down out of Heaven to dwell with men. It says in verse 12: also, She – that is the Church, who is a Bride, so She – She had a great and high wall, with twelve gates, and twelve angels at the gates, and the names written on them which are the names of the twelve tribes of the children of Israel: three gates on the east, three gates on the north, three gates on the south, and three gates on the west. Now the wall of the City had twelve foundations, and on them were the names of the twelve Apostles of the Lamb. The gates are twelve. The angels are twelve. The foundation is twelve. And it has the names of the twelve Apostles written on them, and we come through, it says, through the gates on which are written the names of the twelve tribes of Israel. We come through as members of the Israel of the people of God. So the Church’s foundation, it says in the book of Revelation, is Apostolic.

So everything we do, everything we say, everything we pray and teach and worship has to be seen through the lens of the Apostolic teaching. And so one might say, well come on, you know the Apostles. They were simple fishermen. They were poor. They went from land to land. We heard in the Gospel reading this morning: Jesus says, “come and follow me, and I will make you fishers of men.” I will teach you to catch people for the Kingdom of God. This idea, that the Church is Apostolic, is so important that it colors everything that we see and say and do.

And as I said, some people might object. They say, they were simple people. They didn’t have temples like this. They didn’t have roads. They didn’t have hats that they wear. They didn’t have choirs singing. And we say, oh, but they do now. They do now. It says in the book of Revelation that the Apostles are bowing down at the Throne of God. They’re casting their crowns before the Lord of Glory, before the Lamb who was slain before the beginning of the world. So this idea of the Glory of God, we capture in our worship. How glorious it is today to have all of us together, gathered around the Throne of God with the angels and the saints, the choir leading us in beautiful singing, uplifting us to the place where the angels reside. That is the Apostolic worship. We are not here to somehow recreate first century worship. We are here to enter into Apostolic and Heavenly worship. And a lot of people miss this point. This is extremely important. This is what makes us Apostolic.

So the Church itself is Apostolic. The Church also has this Apostolic Mission. The mission of: “Go into all the world and preach the Gospel to every creature, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, teaching them to observe all things, whatsoever I have commanded.” This is part of our Orthodox Faith. We are a missional Church, and part of that mission for us is local. We received the Orthodox Faith. Look on the wall to your right. We received the Orthodox Faith because of these missionaries: St Herman, St Innocent, St Tikhon. Look at St Alexis Toth. St Alexis Toth is one of those of us who has Slavic background. Because many of the people of Eastern Europe – especially in that part that today we might call Slovakia, the Czech Lands, Poland – those particular people were taken away from the Apostolic Faith. They were taken away from the Orthodox Faith and went into Catholicism. It happened in about the sixteenth century, the seventeenth century. They were taken away, out of our Church, through political means, through financial means, even sometimes through force. When Alexis Toth – St Alexis Toth – came to this country, as what we call an Eastern Rite priest of the Catholic faith, he came to this country and reported himself to the local Catholic bishop. And the local Catholic bishop didn’t want him – didn’t want his kind here. Why? Because he was married, because he had children, which is the fullness of the Apostolic Faith. And he stood for that Apostolic Faith, and he went back to his people when he said the Catholic bishop, Bishop John Ireland, won’t accept us, won’t accept me, won’t accept that I’m a valid Catholic priest. And the people said, then let’s go to the Russian bishop. Let’s go back to our own people. And so they rejoined the Orthodox Faith after hundreds of years of being disassociated with it.

We owe this parish – this parish’s presence – to St Alexis Toth, and to those hard workers, those people who worked in the railroad car factory and the steel mills. Look at this temple that they built! Look at the sacrifice that they made! We celebrate them on All Saints of North America today, too. We are grateful every time that we step into the building for this sacrifice that they made. Because when they came to this country, they weren’t just concerned about being with people of their own kind. They were concerned about glorifying God. And the first thing that they did when they came to this country was they built a temple to His glory.

Now that brings us to the third point. The Church is Apostolic. The Church is local. But the Church is also transformative – transformative if we continue to be Apostolic, if we continue to be faithful to the mission which we have. Part of this transformation is to understand who we really are in Christ, and how we are really supposed to live. And this can be very difficult in a land of former immigrants. When these beloved people, many of our ancestors who came to this land and built this temple to the glory of God, they had their particular ways. They only knew what they knew. And as the Church – like a ship sailing on the seas of the world – continues its journey, we always have to be reminded of the essential mission of the Church, even if the people that built this temple built it for “their own”. First and foremost, “their own” were Orthodox Christians, not just people of a particular ethnicity or a particular language or had particular customs.

As Orthodox Christians in this North American continent, especially in the United States, we have two challenges: we have the challenge to constantly re-align ourselves to the Apostolic Faith, to re-adjust our course. Our course is not to go back to the Old World. Our course is to continue in this land and to proclaim the Gospel in the way that it is most effective, to be heard by the North American people. Obviously, our liturgy is the same exactly the same as the one our ancestors served on the first liturgy, on the first day of this Church. But what’s different? What’s different is obviously the language. We sang “Sviaty Bozhe, Sviaty Krepky, Sviaty Bezsmertny” – we sang, “Holy God, Holy Mighty, Holy Immortal.” We sang that in a way, in remembrance, in honor of our ancestors who built this Church. And because we know this hymn, no matter what language it’s in. We could sing it in Greek or Arabic or Romanian or anything else. But, what’s also different are the names, the faces. What’s different is we’ve gone out – outside of this Church – to bring people in to the Orthodox Faith, to learn the fullness of that catholicity, of that truth. So no longer do we say, “Oh this church is just for people of Slavic ancestry.” We go back to the Orthodox Faith and we say, this church is for everyone who wants to call upon the name of our Lord Jesus Christ and worship Him in Spirit and in Truth. It doesn’t matter what your name is. It doesn’t matter what the color of your skin is or what your ethnicity is. What matters is that you want to love God and embrace Him and worship Him in Spirit and in the fullness of the Truth. That’s our mission today. And that’s one way of re-aligning back to the Apostolic Faith.

And another way is one that I want to demonstrate to you through a story. Last week, there was an article that was published – God forbid – by even one of our clergy of the Orthodox Church in America. And it began to disseminate to those who are faithful, but maybe unknowing, false teachings about the very Scriptures themselves and about the nature of the relationship between men and women, and the foundation of that. And it began to encourage erotic relationships between same sex couples. And this is a cleric of the Orthodox Church! And what’s ironic about this is that our reading today is from Romans chapter 2. And that Romans chapter 1 and 2 is very forthright. It’s very explicit about what is the natural behavior between men and women.

And listen, this is part of this transformative Gospel. No matter what your political affiliation is, no matter what you feel about public rights or government rights, forget about that right now. That’s not the subject. The subject is what God blesses and what God’s plan is for humanity. And in the reading today, it comes after a very explicit and lengthy discussion. You all have Bibles at home, and you have Bibles here. When you have an opportunity, open your Bibles and read at the very beginning of Romans chapter 1 and Romans chapter 2. And I’m just going to read for you this part that is so important for us to understand in Romans chapter one verse 18: “for the wrath of God is revealed from heaven against all ungodliness and unrighteousness of men who suppress the truth in unrighteousness. Because what may be known of God is manifest to them, for God has shown it to them.” Now listen. “For since the creation of the world, His invisible attributes are clearly seen, being understood by the things that are made, even his eternal power and Godhead, so that they are without excuse.”

What do all those words mean? It’s very simple, and that is to say, when we look at humanity, when we look at the way that men are built and the way that women are built – and I don’t want to get too explicit here, because we’ve got tons of kids here. But do you hear what I’m saying? Women and men are built to go together to create children. And when men are together, they create nothing. And when women are together, they create nothing. They are barren. I’m not talking about social rights. I’m talking about the natural creation. I’m talking about the transformative Gospel. And the transformative Gospel says that in the creation itself, God’s attributes are manifest. We look up in the sky, and it proclaims the glory of God. And we look at each other, and we see the natural attributes that go together. And so when in this North American land, we hear a deacon write an article which contradicts the Gospel, we must resist it with every fiber of our being. And yes, I have been very outspoken about this.

I have also been outspoken about another thing, and that is to say, we need to welcome the poor, the maimed, the diseased, the drug addicts, the homosexuals, everyone! We need to invite them into our Church. They are not our enemies. They are our mission field! We are not here to judge anyone. We are here, all of us together, all of us as sinners, to transform ourselves. And so, this re-aligning, constantly for us as Orthodox Christians, to say: What are my values? What do I believe? What does the Church teach, and how can I re-align myself and transform myself to the Truth as God has revealed it? This is going to be, in the 21st century, the most difficult challenge we have as Orthodox Christians. For us in the OCA – English? It’s done. That battle was fought in the 1960’s. In fact, this parish was one of the first to start to use English. Mr Wasilko, our professor, was one of the first churches in the area to start to use English. And Fr Varlashkin was probably resisting it a little bit. So we have pioneers in this church. But that struggle is gone. We’re beyond that.

The struggle now is in a culture that knows nothing of God, that knows nothing of Christ, that knows nothing of Church, and being able to portray and to live that faith in a way that is consistent with the Gospel, and to spread it to bring people into the Faith. So, we celebrate today the Apostolicity of the Faith. That is, we are built on the foundation of the teaching and the persons of the twelve Apostles, and the Heavenly Jerusalem itself is built on the foundation of the Apostles. We also celebrate today that the Church is local. How grateful we are for the sacrifices of our founders of this holy temple. We are in awe of what they accomplished, and we have to continue that mission. And I believe that we are doing it, and I believe that we all have to be convinced of it. And we also celebrate that the Gospel that we receive is transformative. It is the Apostolic Faith. It is the fullness – the catholicity – the one Faith that is given to us for our salvation. What a tremendous thing that we have! What a gift that we have and want to share with others! It was not easy for these missionaries who came to this country, and it is not easy for us, but with God’s help we will fulfill the mission. To Him Who is our Life, with the Father and the Spirit, be glory, honor, and majesty, always now and ever, and unto ages of ages. Amen! Glory to Jesus Christ! [Glory be forever!]