A few years ago someone came up with a startling statistic that I initially doubted then came to regretfully and grudgingly think might be true: That 9 out of 10 Americans with Greek ancestry are no longer connected to the Orthodox Faith. I didn’t believe it because so many in my own parish were active in their faith and practicing their faith seriously and with commitment.
Then I remembered my first Midnight Pascha service at Holy Cross Greek Orthodox School of Theology and the sea of people I had never seen before outside the church building at midnight. The parking lot was overflowing. The people packed inside, and the hundreds outside who couldn’t get in! It was wonderful UNTIL I watched as the hundreds left right after the “Christos Anesti” and a lit candle. Where did everybody go? We still have liturgy! The Eucharist is going to be offered!
Look at our lesson today in Matthew 10:1, 5-8:
At that time, Jesus called to him his twelve disciples and gave them authority over unclean spirits, to cast them out, and to heal every disease and every infirmity. These twelve Jesus sent out, charging them, “Go nowhere among the Gentiles, and enter no town of the Samaritans, but go rather to the lost sheep of the house of Israel. And preach as you go, saying, ‘The kingdom of heaven is at hand.’ Heal the sick, raise the dead, cleanse lepers, cast out demons. You received without paying, give without pay.”
Here our Lord Jesus is giving His disciples instructions about going out to spread the message that the “Kingdom of Heaven is at hand.” What does that mean? Well, to everyone who had been raised in the Hebrew faith for centuries, it was a clear announcement that they long awaited Messiah was here and God’s Kingdom was being declared, not a place as much as a life saving acknowledgement that God was the Sovereign, the King, over all!
And those Hebrews missed it, for the most part! They had had centuries of advantages in Faith, Theology, Liturgy, Prayer, the lives of the heroes of the Faith, and still, they missed Him!
But even though Christ knew that He was going to be rejected by His own people, He insisted that the disciples go to the “lost sheep of the house of Israel” so that He could prove that no matter how unfaithful or disregarding the people of Israel had become, they were still going to get the message of His arrival first! God is Faithful and True and He wanted to offer His Kingdom to His people first.
It wasn’t that Jesus didn’t want the Gentiles or the Samaritans (outsiders and halfbreeds) to ever hear the message of the Kingdom. Later, after His resurrection, He will tell these same disciples to “Go into all the world, and preach the Gospel…” Jesus wanted everyone to hear the message but He wanted His own people to hear first in the hope that hearing the message they would wake from the delusions of their pride and the easy hypocrisy of their pedigree to reignite the fire of Faith in their hearts! And it worked for some! All the earliest disciples of the Lord were Hebrews! All of His Apostles were from the House of Israel. All of the converts on the Day of Pentecost, all 3000, were of the Jewish faith! Some were stirred even among the priesthood of the Jews to embrace Jesus as the Messiah!
But all too many didn’t. Even after all their advantages by being raised in the Faith, seeing their parents practice the Faith, hear stories about the Faith, and witness the beauties of the Worship of the Faith, the Temple and all the liturgies practiced for centuries, still the hardness of their hearts left them immune to the Light of Christ. Their stubbornness kept them slaves.
And that is true for us today. We can so easily allow the treasures of our Faith to become mere decorations of our lives.; empty habits that are easily dismissed as mere nostalgia. None of us are immune to this temptation. But there is a remedy!
Today, are you witnessing this danger in your own life? No matter how long the Faith has been part of your life; lifelong Orthodox or even the children of converts to the faith; all of us have to stay awake to the temptations of nostalgia and mere habit. It’s true in our relationships and it is certainly true in our relationship with God: we are always in danger of “just going through the motions.” If you will allow the love of God and for God to keep the fire of devotion kindled in your soul, you will always be Orthodox on Purpose!