Thursday, August 24, 2006
Among all of us who share an Orthodox heritage, this is indeed the great temptation. The local parish, rather than being the Church, becomes our “possession,” a structure by which and in which we preserve our own heritage and promote our own agendas. Little wonder that we no longer perceive it to be a living and life-giving member of the universal Body of Christ, uniting the living and the dead in an eternal communion that reflects the boundless love of an infinitely merciful God.
It is no exaggeration to say that the vast majority of “problems” that arise within our parishes are due to this misperception concerning the nature of the local church. Problems between clergy and laity, between bishop and priest, and between various members of the community, can usually be traced to our sinful tendency to transform the parish from the Body of Christ into a kind of social organization whose purpose is to provide us with “spiritual” nurture and a communal identity, while imposing little or nothing upon us in the way of repentance, self-sacrifice and love. This situation represents a chronic illness within our church communities. But because it concerns basically our patterns of behavior, it signals as well an ethical or moral crisis.... When the Prodigal repents of his arrogant profligacy and turns back home, he finds the father waiting for him with open arms. Willing to be taken in as a hired servant, he is instead embraced and showered with gifts, to celebrate his “repentance,” his return to the father’s house. The older brother, however, is filled with jealousy. He has remained “faithful” to the duties expected of a son. He has, we can say, played the role of the faithful Pharisee, respecting the rituals of daily life, including required chores and prayer. Yet he condemns himself by comparing his deeds and attitudes to those of his younger brother. Rather than rejoice at his brother’s return, he becomes sullen and resentful. “The household is mine,” he thinks to himself; “I have remained faithful to it, and this fellow who left it of his own accord has no right to be received back.” How many of us harbor similar thoughts and feelings regarding those of other Christian confessions, or of no confession at all? “They abandoned the faith,” we think to ourselves, “therefore they have no business coming into our church, our parish!” And in the midst of this hypocrisy, we wonder why the Church is not growing, why some are predicting that our parishes will simply wither away…
Hypocrisy, though, whether of the Pharisee or of the Older Son in Jesus’ parables, is rooted in a refusal to love. This is the most basic ailment affecting church life today. We have fashioned the parish community into our own image and likeness, creating a style of “Christianity” that is comfortable and undemanding. Would anyone, looking in from outside, ever see in our midst evidence of authentic repentance and a concern for active mission? Would they perceive that we are in fact “Christian,” given that true faith in Christ necessarily entails bearing his Cross for the sake of others? Would they be convinced that we have heard Jesus’ one commandment that sums up every other: “Love the Lord your God…and your neighbor as yourself”? Unless our parish life reflects at its deepest level that most fundamental concern for love, then we cannot claim that our parish is truly “of the Church” at all.