Prayer for Retention: Sunday of the Holy Fathers

May 27, 2015 Length: 30:05

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In the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit: one God. [Amen.]

You might know, brothers and sisters, that in Christian art, in sacred art, the evangelists—Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John—have images associated with them that are often depicted in the icons of the evangelists. These images are the lion, the eagle, a man, and a calf. They are associated with particular evangelists, so, for instance, Matthew is the lion. Perhaps he’s associated with the lion, his gospel, because he presents Jesus as the Lion of the tribe of Judah. His gospel was written to show that Christ is the fulfillment of all the yearnings of the prophets and of the Old Testament. There are more quotations of the Old Testament in Matthew than in any other gospel text. Mark is the image of a man, because Mark’s focus is to present Jesus as the Son of man, as the ultimate Man. It’s the quickest-moving of all the gospels, and the shortest of them.

Luke is the calf. I remember that association because Luke is the only one of the gospel writers that depicts those three marvelous parables of Jesus recovering the lost that are recorded in Luke 15: the lost sheep, the lost coin, and then that magnificent text about the prodigal son. And in the story of the prodigal son, the father, in his jubilation at receiving his wayward son back into his fatherly embrace, slays the fatted calf and convokes the festivities of a repentance party.

John is the eagle. I shouldn’t have to explain why he’s the eagle, since you just heard the reading from the gospel of John, chapter 17, one of the most sublime texts and theological affirmations in the whole New Testament. John is an eagle because he soars; his teaching of divine theology is so high, so lifted up. Think of how he starts his gospel: “In the beginning was the word, and the word was with God, and the word was God.” That prologue that we read on the night of holy Pascha is deep theology, which is why we call St. John “the Theologian.” He takes us up very high. And besides the prologue, besides the first chapter of John, next to that and perhaps equal with that is the text you just heard this morning—John 17—absolutely unique in the witness of the evangelists. No other gospel writer has this text.

This text is an intimate text. It’s a text that allows us to sneak into a conversation between the Father and his only-begotten Son. This prayer, this text is divine discourse between members of the Holy Trinity: Jesus, turning his eyes away from his apostles to his Father, and praying to his Father for them. It shares this radical affirmation about Jesus’ divine identity, just like John 1 does. Jesus says to his Father in his prayer, “Father, the hour has come.” That’s something to hear, because many times until this moment, Jesus has constantly been saying to his disciples, to his family, “My hour has not yet come,” but today you hear: It’s here. The hour has come, and then he makes these beautiful words into a prayer. He says, “Glorify thou me, together with thee, O Father, with the glory that I had with thee before the world was.”

Chunk. Our jaws should be on the ground, listening to that. This is the same affirmation that John made in the prologue: “In the beginning was the word, and the word was with God, and the word was God.” This is sublime teaching. Our Savior shed his glory in his great compassion for man, and condescended to be born into this trash heap of earthly life, even into the midst of all of its sorrow and wretchedness that we, by our sins, have brought into existence. He shed his glory and was treated by most people simply as a commoner, though this was the One who was in glory with the Father before the world ever existed. This text also is sublime in teaching the heart of the Church’s message of the Gospel and the offer of eternal life. Eternal life is the theme of John’s writings, both in this gospel and his epistles. More than any other evangelist, he speaks about eternal life constantly. This is something we Americans need to hear, since we are focused on biological life, obsessed with earthly life, and rarely think about the eternal at all these days.

That was not John’s focus. John collected our Savior’s many teachings about eternal life, and he presented them consistently in his writings. In this passage, Jesus unveils in his prayer what eternal life is. He doesn’t define eternal life as unending biological life. Many people think that’s what heaven is: heaven is what we have now except it never stops and there’s no sin. Wrong! That is not what heaven is. Heaven is not just a place where you can have all the fun things of earthly life forever. That’s way too limited a vision for the glorification of the human being. No, heaven is something much better. “This is eternal life,” the Lord says in his prayer. “This is eternal life: that they might know thee, the only true God, and Jesus Christ, whom thou hast sent.”

The earthly parallel is the conjugal union between a husband and wife. What is that called in the Scriptures? Adam knowing his wife. That is the level of intimacy that Jesus is describing in this prayer as constituting eternal life. Eternal life means we know God deeply, personally, intimately; not about him, him. An amazing text. To know the Persons of the Trinity, for them to be in us and us to be in them.

This kind of knowledge is not gained from a book. In fact, this kind of knowledge of God no one has except the Son. Jesus said this. “No one knows the Son except the Father, and no one knows the Father except the Son and anyone to whom the Son chooses to reveal him.” This kind of relationship, brothers and sisters—eternal life is something revealed. This is what we confess in every Orthros service. You heard it this morning. “God is the Lord and has revealed himself to us. Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord.” The knowledge of God that we have is because God has sought us. He’s chosen to make himself manifest to us. He has sought us like the divine courtier he is, hungering and thirsting, St. John Chrysostom says, for a wife, more impassionately than any earthly lover ever has. Oh! Yes!

This is God, and this is why we know him: because he sought us out. He’s shown us himself. He’s put his arms out, and we have responded, and in that embrace we’ve come to know him and possessed eternal life. St. Gregory the Theologian says, “The knowledge of God is like a circle that pushes out into a cone—forever, through all eternity.” There’s no depth that can be measured of the knowledge of God. There’s no end to him. No, that embrace that we’ve begun as Christian people, that eternal life that we’ve embraced in a personal relationship with God in the Church, will deepen forever. What a sublime text.

By the way, that’s not what I want you to focus on. I want you to see one thing, one thing in this text. This text reveals Jesus’ concern, where his mind, where his heart was, just before he left the earth. He’s about… In this text he says, “Father, I am coming to thee.” He’s about to leave the world. He says, “They are in the world, but I am no longer in the world.” He’s about to leave. He’s about to go to the Cross. He’s about to descend to hell. He’s about to express his victory over Satan, rise again from the dead, and then ascend into heaven in the flesh, something that the disciples were terribly afraid of. They were so worried that they would be left, abandoned, orphans, that this new life that they had lived for three years with Jesus was coming to an end, and they had no idea what was going to replace it.

What was Jesus’ concern on the cusp of leaving the world? His concern was the retention of his disciples. Listen to these words:

I am no longer in the world, and yet they themselves are in the world, and I come to thee. Holy Father, keep them in thy name. While I was with them, I was keeping them in thy name. I guarded them, and not one of them perished but the son of perdition.

This is Judas. Son of hell, he calls him.

I do not ask thee to take them out of the world, but to keep them from the evil one. They are not of the world, even as I am not of the world. Sanctify them in the truth. Thy word is truth. Father, I desire that they be with me where I am.

What was in Jesus’ heart and mind just before he was leaving the world? We. He goes on in that prayer and says: I don’t pray just for them but for those who would believe through their word—us. His concern was retaining his disciples, keeping them in the condition in which he had established them: close to God. This is what he says in that prayer. This is what he asks for us: one, that we be kept in his name; two, that we be kept from the evil one; three, that we be kept from the world; fourth, that we might be sanctified in the truth; and fifth, that we might be with him where he is forever.

Oh! Doesn’t this sound very much like the prayer of parents for their children who are coming of age? As I was reading this, all I could think of was the prayers that I have made to God as my kids have left my house, as they have gone to college. “Lord, keep them in thy name. Let them be in the world. I’m not asking that you take them out. I know they have to go, but keep them to be not of this world while they’re in it. Keep them from the evil one. Sanctify them in the truth. And let us be together forever.” This is the prayer of parents.

Retention, that we might stay together, brothers and sisters, that we might not be pulled apart by the world and by the evil one. You know, this week, providentially, as we were coming upon this beautiful text, which is appointed for this Sunday, which is the Sunday of the Fathers of the First Ecumenical Council, the Nicene Fathers who gave to us the magnificent and inspired Creed that we confess, the only ecumenical creed ever in the history of the Church, that binds us together, confessed by all Christians in all places at all times, the Nicene Creed—those holy Fathers are holy Fathers because they lived in eternal life. They were deified men who knew God, not about God.

They knew God, and the Creed was their expression of that life. They spoke about the Father, which was the first paragraph of the Creed; they spoke about the Son of God, which is the second and by far the longest paragraph of the Creed; they spoke about the Holy Spirit, which is the third paragraph of the Creed; and they spoke about the Church, which is the fourth and last paragraph in the Creed, because they knew the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit, and these words were an attempt to put into expression, human philological expression, their experience of eternal life, of knowing the Holy Trinity.

They didn’t even want to do it. They did it for one reason: as a guard for us. The Fathers put down the living experience of Christians into words to protect us from heresy. The First Ecumenical Council, as all the ecumenical councils of the Church, was called in response to the rise of the heresy of Arianism, and this is the case always in the councils. Providentially, the reason that this text is appointed for the Sunday of the Holy Fathers is because they are the answer to Jesus’ prayers of how we’re kept in the truth, how we’re able to be in the world and still stay with God. The Creed is our guardian.

You know, as a pastor and a father, I’m very concerned, as our Savior is, with retention, very concerned. And this week, a magnificent study that was done by the Pew Charitable Foundations in the Pew Research Society was just revealed. It’s a seven-year study, a massive study, of all religious groups in America, studying retention rates from 2007 until 2014. It’s revelatory for many reasons. It examines religious retention rates amongst Catholics, Evangelicals, mainline Protestants, the Black Church in America, the Mormons, the LDS, the Jehovah’s Witnesses, and Orthodox Christians. It’s nice to be included specifically in this study. They also studied Hindu and Muslim retention rates from 2007 to 2014.

Let me tell you what I learned. I spent at least two hours this week with this detailed study. They produced it online, and they gave you lots of wonderful tools, so if you were in one of these subgroups, you could go to the Pew study, and you could examine many, many details about your religious affiliation. This is what I found out.

In general, in only seven years, there has been an almost 8% reduction in self-identification of Americans as Christians. We’ve gone from 78.4% to 70.6% of our nation who call themselves Christians. That is a radical movement, almost a percentage point reduction every year for seven years. All groups and all religions have experienced this, this loss of adherence, but it’s especially acute amongst the young. Tell us something we don’t know. The young, who have been subjected to decades of aggressive secular catechism in our public schools, the young who are tasting the fruit of the sexual revolution, the young who are growing up, many of them with no fathers in their house, shattered families, all the while being told, “This is liberation. Taste the freedom. Isn’t it good?” Is it any surprise that they aren’t following their parents’ religion? I don’t think so.

Here’s what I learned specifically about us. We are the only, of all of those groups, the only group that is majority male. This is something. You’ve heard me speak about the tragic feminization of Christianity in America. Thank God we are continuing to resist it up until the end of 2014. That doesn’t mean we will continue to—I don’t know. But this is a shocking truth, that in Orthodox churches across the land, there are slightly more men in our churches than women. And we all should be very thankful for that. They didn’t measure what those men are doing compared to the women; that might be a different result. I know it would be… [Clears throat] but they’re there.

The men are there; they haven’t been turned off, like in some of the large Christian groups, like in the Catholic Church, where seven out of ten members are women. Men simply are not interested in going to church and hearing hymn after hymn as though it was some sort of romantic ballad, orgiastic expression of relationship with Jesus. Forgive me. That paradigm doesn’t work for most men, and, thank God, the masculinity of Orthodoxy, especially in its ascetic life, has kept its men here. This is one thing I learned.

Here’s two more important things. Of all of the religious groups in America, the Orthodox Church is the most educated of all. We have a higher percentage of members who have post-graduate degrees than any other group. And here’s that third point: Compared to all of the religious groups in America, we are the wealthiest. Wow. Most education, most wealth, most men. That’s a big shocker to me. That’s a big shocker. Nevertheless, the retention rate for Orthodox Christians, that is, what percentage of our young people who grew up in our Church remain Orthodox when they go out into the world by themselves—guess what the rate is? 53%. We lose almost half, almost half of our young people.

That’s bad news, and this is another piece of bad news. We have a lower percentage of married believers than any other religious group in America. 48% of Orthodox are married. That means it’s less than the majority. For the LDS, it’s 66%; for the Evangelicals, 55%; for the Roman Catholics, 52%. We’re only worse… We are the worst except for the Black Church, sadly 31%. Broken families. That’s a great shocking reality. I’m telling you all of this because our Savior is concerned about retention, and all of these numbers, brothers and sisters, are all about retention!

Are we retaining our people? Are they being kept from the evil one when they grow up? Are they being kept in the name of Christ? Are they going to be with us, where we are, forever—or not? This has to be our great ambition. It looks to me like this: It looks like we need to emphasize, in our actions, our families. We need to hold onto each other. We need to show the dignity of Christian marriage by living it, by not breaking it, by holding onto each other in faithfulness and fidelity, making our love grow, investing ourselves in our families, so that our churches can grow and that our children can have beautiful, healthy upbringings in which they admire their family’s faith and keep it.

It’s also obvious to me that we need to do something with our education and wealth—for retention. And if I’m right, then one of the great factors at losing our people to the faith is the fact that we are teaching them one thing in church and at home, and we’re sending them into the hands of the devil in education. This is a great hypocrisy we need to end, and we have every reason to do it, because we’re the most-educated of any Christian group, and we have the most money! So why do we have the least schools? Why do we have the least universities? It makes no sense! It’s time for us to exercise leadership. I think the reason is because we haven’t presented yet, to our people, a vision that they believe in.

I’ll tell you, I have gone from community to community. Look in Los Angeles: there’s a lot of us here. Look at the hospitals that dot the Orthodox cathedrals in L.A. Do you know how many of those wings have been funded by Orthodox people? All over the place! Go to the… When you get off at Third and Alvarado, and you go to our cathedral, stop at the hospital you pass. You will go in, and you will walk through wings of that hospital funded by parishioners of our cathedral. Millions of dollars to these hospitals, and we don’t have a single Orthodox hospital ourselves? We don’t have any schools, hardly any? No, brothers and sisters, it’s time for us to step up, to provide leadership as a channel for this great education and the wealth that God has given our people, so that we can build schools that will teach the love of God and nourish our children in a harmonious worldview, harmonious with their families and their churches so that they can grow up and stay Orthodox.

Check it out yourself. Go do some research on the Pew study. You can just Google it. Look at all of the subcategories. I’m only just touching the top of the iceberg. No, we can do something. We can do something. It’s our moment to do something, and answer Jesus’ prayer, collaborate with his prayer:

Father, I am no longer in the world, but they are in the world. Keep them in thy name. While I was with them, I guarded them and I kept them in thy name. I pray for them, that they might be kept from the evil one, and that they might be where I am, forever. Amen.