A priest friend sent me an article from Franklin Graham’s website, describing a revival in the Ukraine. Like others who have gone to Eastern Europe to preach the gospel, there is frequently a mistaken assessment of the Orthodox Church. Graham’s article recognized a holiness present in the Church’s there, but described it as “Old Testament,” and generally likened the Church to “religion” and not the same thing as “personal relationship.” These, of course, are improper descriptions, and in some cases, “cheap shots.”
The “Christian” world, is filled with organized churches – some are Protestant, some are Roman Catholic, soom are Pentecostal, some are Orthodox. Without examining their differences (it is not important for the purposes of this post), there is a commonality that can be found universally. Stated by St. Augustine: “There are some whom God has whom the Church has not, and some whom the Church has whom God has not.” Were Graham to travel to Scotland, Holland, England (I am mentioning countries where Protestant Evangelicalism had some original roots) he would find Church attendance as a tiny fraction of the population and a great need for the acceptance of the Gospel of Jesus Christ. I state this to say it is not an Eastern European problem, nor an Orthodox problem. It is simply a fact of life in the early 21st century.
We recently had a Franklin Graham crusade in our metro area. I am told that there are flyers being passed out by some associated with the crusade that describe Roman Catholic and Orthodox Churches as places to avoid because they do not teach a “personal” relationship with Christ – which, of course, is simply not true.
Do the Orthodox do a good job of preaching and teaching the Gospel wherever it exists? Even in the first century, based on the evidence of St. Paul’s letters, there were churches where the gospel was not being properly proclaimed. Apparently such problems have always existed, and will until our Lord’s return. Could the same be said of Presbyterians, Episcopalians, Baptists and Independent Evangelicals? I know so.
The Orthodox Church does not teach that we are saved by our own works. That would be a Pelagian heresy. Anyone who says we teach this is misinformed. If there are weaknesses in the Orthodox Church then they should be correctly identified and dealt with as one does a brother. We have them. After 70 years of persecution, the Church in the East is emerging into a new-found freedom and into an unstable political world. The restoration of the fullness of the Church will take time – not mischaracterizations. It will take prayer, not Americanization. It will take sacrificial support and not taunting by its wealthy Christian neighbors.
I offer here a short article on “personal” salvation from an earlier post. It is an example of Orthodox writing (mine) on the topic. My writing is but a shallow presentation. There is not time to present the depth of Orthodox teaching on the subject. For such teaching I recommend the current writings of Archimandrite Zacharias, referenced in recent articles, or the writings of Fr. Sophrony, frequently referenced on this blog. May God help all Christians and bless them – despite our shortcomings. May God help the Orthodox Christians of Eastern Europe and beyond to be fully who they are called to be and manifest to the world around them the gospel that has been entrusted to them. And may God bless the Church’s enemies everywhere, and forgive those of us within the Church, myself included, who may be a cause of stumbling for others.
Perhaps the most difficult theological truth to communicate in the modern world is that of personal existence. Modern English has taken the word person from the realm of theology and changed it into the cheapest coin of the realm. Today it means that which is private, merely individual. As such, it becomes synonymous not with salvation but with our very destruction. Life lived as a mere individual is no life at all but a progressive movement towards death and destruction.
Thus there is always something of a hesitancy when someone asks (in newspeak), “Have you accepted Jesus Christ as your personal savior?” If only we would, it would be truly significant. But in our modern street-wise theology, Christ as personal savior becomes synonymous with Christ as private savior, and as such is no savior at all. For no one and nothing can save the false existence we have created in the privacy of our modern existence. We were not created for such an existence.
In the story of Genesis – the first appearance of the phrase, “It is not good,” is applied to man – in an existence that is private. “It is not good for man to be alone.” We do not exist in the goodness which God has created for us when we exist alone. The most remote hermit of the Christian desert does not live alone, but lives radically for others and to God. Of all men he is the least alone. No one would take on the radical ascesis of the desert for themselves alone: it is an act of radical love.
And thus the personal God: Father, Son and Holy Spirit, determined that salvation for humanity could only take place as we lived fully and truly into the existence for which we were and are created: the Church. In the Church we do not exist as mere individuals but as members of the Body of Christ. My life is the life of Christ. What happens to me is essential to what happens to all the members of the Body and what happens to the members of the Body is essential for what happens to me. Their life is my life.
Thus when we approach the cup of Christ’s Body and Blood, we never approach it for our private good but as members of the Body. We are thus enjoined to be in love and charity with our neighbor and to forgive the sins of all – otherwise the cup is not for our salvation but our destruction.
The salvation into which we are Baptized is a new life – no longer defined by the mere existence of myself as an individual – but rather by the radical freedom of love within the Body of Christ. To accept Christ as our “personal” savior, thus can be translated into its traditional Orthodox form: “Do you unite yourself to Christ?” And this question is more fully expounded when we understand that the Christ to whom we unite ourself is a many-membered body.
After the resurrection, Christ appeared to the Apostle Peter. Their dialog must have been the most profound dialog ever to take place between man and God. “Do you love me?” Christ asked Peter. Peter hedged his answer. But Christ responded, “Feed my sheep.” For to love Christ and to feed His sheep are not two things but one. For Peter to finally know this was indeed his personal salvation. It is ours as well. Glory to God.