Just the Church
Mr Andrew Boyd
A really expensive renaissance fair, a self-help group that has you perpetually stuck on “Step-11”, a cultural center with great food but terrible music, a gym that focuses on developing your calf muscles, a self-referential society with unlimited Ryan Gossling jokes. Our Orthodox Faith, Christ’s Church, our traditions and practices, can be just about anything you want to make them into. And most of us, as imperfect beings, want to make it into anything but what it is. What is the Church? The Church is Christ, communion with Him in His Kingdom through His mystical and sacramental presence. Is that why you go to Church? Is that why our “Church” organizations and institutions exist?
The uniqueness of life in the Orthodox Church in America, is that our collective vocation is so simple. All we have to do is be the Church, just the Church and nothing more. We have freedom of self-direction, the freedom to take risks, to make mistakes, to correct ourselves or open ourselves to the correction of others. Most of all, we have the complete freedom to preach the Gospel of Christ to the world in which we live. That’s what makes us “apostolic:” the content of our preaching, the Fullness of the Gospel of Christ, our God incarnate and crucified, raised and glorified. Now enthroned with His Father, He offers himself as the vehicle for communion with eternal life in the Kingdom. It’s the solution to all our problems (though our ‘problems’ are always and ever just our sins). Christ died, being God and fully Human to free us first from ourselves, to give meaning and life to our lives. He came not just so we would have life, but have it abundantly.
This Gospel, when preached, is what gives legitimacy to our claim to be the one, true faith – the true expression of Christianity, the true followers of the true God in the pantheon of modern deities. The Church, therefore, is the group that preaches and lives that Gospel. That sounds really nice and theological, but what does that look like? It looks like a simple monk standing up to his compatriots and peers in defense of maligned, maltreated, and abused native population (St. Herman). It looks like a talented bishop working hard to use every means to take the Good News of Jesus Christ to a people who have never heard it (St. Innocent). It can look like a young man refusing to give up even an ounce of the fullness of the Gospel taught to him in the face of harm and violent torture (Peter the Aleut). We have so many bright and concrete examples of what it means to be the Church here in our Land. For them, communion with God, with the crucified Christ, was a constant source of Life and energy – not simply to live a “nice life” with a good job, health insurance, and a 401K plan, but to share the abundance of the Kingdom with all.
“Well, that’s nice, but I’m no saint,” you might be tempted to say. Well, my response would be “Yes you are, start acting like it.” For every example I can hold up from the thousands of canonized saints we have, I have one for some amazing person I have met in this Church who aren’t officially “saints.” What does it look like to be the Church? It looks like the priest who leaves his meager savings to pay off the mortgage on one of our Monasteries so it can continue to serve the world in humility and prayer, it looks like 90 year-old woman on a fixed income who paid for my gas to get to Church in college, it looks like the small parish that paid for my textbooks in seminary, it looks like a circle of people asking for and giving each other forgiveness on a cold, February afternoon. To me, we always looked the most like the Church at Paschal Vespers, where everyone is clearly exhausted, often in the same clothes as the night before, yet physical limitations and common logic are always defied and the proclamation of the most important message ever, “Christ is Risen” acts as fuel to fire our joy. That’s the Church, joyful and active, in the face of physical limits and worldly logic.
At the recent 17th All-American Council Father Thomas Hopko gave a memorable sermon on this topic. “Leonty, Alexis, Raphael, Nikolai,” he said, “ they were all here in this land, and they all said the same thing. There has to be a Church here that’s nothing but a Church. It’s not a culture center. It’s not a heritage museum. It’s not a summer camp. It’s not a therapeutic center. It’s not a way of mystical progress. It’s just the Body and Blood of Christ, the household of God, the pillar and bulwark of the Truth, the fullness of Him who fills all in all against which mystically the gates of death will never prevail.”
Many of us, especially those who are the most involved in the life of the Church, try in vain (consciously and unconsciously) to recreate the Church in our own image, to save it from some imagined impending doom, or to retreat into the safety of “orthodox” sub-culture. The vocation we have all been gifted is to loudly proclaim the Gospel of Jesus Christ, sometimes against logic, often with difficult limitations, but always with joy and with certitude that Christ is life, and death has no power anymore.