Seventeenth Sunday after Pentecost / First Sunday of Luke, September 27, 2015
II Corinthians 6:16-7:1; Luke 5:1-11
Rev. Fr. Andrew Stephen Damick
In the Name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, one God. Amen.
I had a friend who was a Ph.D. student at a university in New York City. He was a brilliant, traditional Orthodox Christian who was serious about his faith in Christ and also serious about doing real scholarly work. He was also possibly the smartest person I’ve ever met. He died earlier this year in an accident. I was thinking recently about a conversation he and I had a few years ago about the doctoral work he was pursuing at the time.
He wa in the theology department at the university, and he said that most people on the faculty were almost entirely hostile to traditional Christianity and of course therefore to Orthodoxy. He said that they tolerated his presence but that they were so steeped in secular fundamentalism that they would never consider eventually acknowledging him as a colleague. I asked him why he was there, since he knew he would never break into their world. He answered that he was simply trying to get the work done, but that he regarded most of the modern academy, especially the theological academy, as really too far gone to include the possibility of working in it from within.
“We have to begin building our own institutions,” he said. “We have to develop our own culture.”
I’ve been thinking about that last comment again lately, and it came to mind again when I was looking at the epistle reading for today. In it, the Apostle Paul references to the Christians of Corinth from the Old Testament books of Isaiah and Ezekiel these words: “‘Therefore come out from among them, and be separate,’ says the Lord, ‘and touch nothing unclean; and I will receive you, and I will be a Father to you, and you shall be sons and daughters to me,’ says the Lord Almighty” (Is. 52:11; Ezekiel 20:34, 41).
What did my friend mean? And what does this mean, when the Lord Almighty says to us, “Come out from among them, and be separate”?
It is one of the most basic problems of true Christian life. Indeed, the very word for the Church in Greek, the language used when the Church was conceived, is ekklesia, which means “those who have been called out.” We as the Church have been called out of the world. We have been called to be separate. What does that mean?
In the earliest years of the Church’s life, the separateness of the Christian was pretty obvious. If he was a convert from Judaism in Palestine, he was someone who was withdrawing from the majority Jewish practice. He no longer was ruled by the Mosaic Law and the customs of the rabbis. He at first supplemented his synagogue and Temple worship with the Christian Eucharist, and then, when the Christians were thrown out of the synagogues and when the Romans destroyed the Temple, he worshiped exclusively with Christians.
Likewise, a pagan convert to Christianity was even more conspicuous. He stopped worshiping pagan gods. He wouldn’t join the army, because military service meant worshiping the god your unit took as its patron and also worshiping the Emperor as divine. The Christian also held to a much higher moral standard, and he even was known for loving and caring for the pagans, not only members of his own religious group, something no one else did.
Whether a convert from Judaism or from paganism, the Christian understood himself to be separate from the world, if only because the world was often prepared to put him to death for his faith. And he knew he was separate, because he now belonged to a new community, the Church, the first truly counter-cultural community.
As time went on, in the fourth century Christianity eventually was not only legalized but gradually became the majority religion of the Roman Empire, and the idea of Christendom was born, in which the separateness of Christians from the world was no longer as obvious as it had been, because now almost everyone was at least formally a Christian. One did not have to leave society in any sense in order to become a Christian. Being Christian actually became expected by society. About this time monasticism arose as a major movement in reaction, because the fervor of those first martyric Christians had been replaced by Christianity becoming “normal.”
And now we live in the age of post-Christendom, when the ruins of what had once been Christian society are here and there around us, but we again find ourselves in an empire that is becoming more and more hostile to the Gospel, so perhaps this is now a pre-Christian world. This time it is not paganism, however, but secular fundamentalism. And like all fundamentalisms, secular fundamentalism will not stop until it has taken over every moment of our lives.
If you don’t believe that that’s true, consider the kinds of changes that have occurred within the past couple of centuries and even within many of our own lifetimes. In the great age of Christendom, daily participation in corporate worship was the norm for every Christian. Your day was regulated not by alarm clocks but by church bells. No one went to work on Church holy days—not just Christmas and Pascha, either, but all of them. Rulers were not only comfortable with using sincere religious language in their governance, but most of them actually received a theological education. Now, they’re almost all lawyers and businessmen.
As time has gone on, Christ’s name has been less and less comfortable to use in public life. People eventually whittled down their personal investment in worship into just an hour or maybe two on Sunday morning. And for a while, Sunday was still regarded as sacred. Stores weren’t open on Sunday. It was a quiet day, begun with God and continued with family. But now, even Sunday morning is under assault, and there are all kinds of activities that are impinging, bit by bit, on Christian education and on Christian worship.
I wonder whether most Christians will simply quietly surrender, and yield the last little scrap that was once reserved for God, so that now all seven days of the week, all 365 days of the year will be administered the anesthetic of “activities.”
But instead of spending our time trying to recover a lost Christendom, I believe our call is to return to those first days of the Christian Church, when choosing Christ meant giving something up, when the Church functioned as the ekklesia, those who have been called out. And perhaps the moment will soon come again when choosing Christ may mean giving up our very lives. It already means that for some of our brothers and sisters elsewhere in the world.
As Orthodox Christians, we are not called to reject the created world that God made, but we do reject Satan and all his angels and all his service and all his pride, at becoming catechumens or at baptism. That is “the world” which we are called to reject, the corruption and the fundamentalism of secular society, the endless and mindless pursuit of pleasure and possessions and prestige.
We have to begin building our own institutions. We have to develop our own culture. That is not a rejection of the world or a withdrawal from the world, but it is rather an invitation to the world to enter into the haven of the Church.
We have to see to the integrity of our families and our churches and our communities if we are going to weather the storm that is already blowing. We have tried to assert our beliefs on the world, but the world is rejecting them. We still must evangelize them, but we have to do so with a firm footing in a coherent, vigorous life of faith in our homes, in our parish and in the Church at large.
We have “come out” from the world, but we do not reject the world. We stand separate from the world in order that the world may see that it does not have to remain as it is. We have become “sons and daughters” of the Lord Almighty, and we extend that same welcome into the family to all who will hear and believe.
To our Lord Jesus Christ be all glory, honor and worship, with the Father and the Holy Spirit, now and ever, and unto ages of ages. Amen.