Children of Abraham or Religious Consumers?

abraham-sacrifice

Ss. Barbara of Ba’albek and John of Damascus / Tenth Sunday of Luke, December 4, 2016
Galatians 3:23-29, 4:1-5; Luke 13:10-17
Very Rev. Fr. Andrew Stephen Damick

In the Name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, one God. Amen.

Today we have two readings from the Scripture that mention something similar. In the epistle reading from Galatians 3, we hear “And if you are Christ’s, then you are Abraham’s seed, heirs according to promise” (Gal. 3:29). And in the reading from Luke 13, where Jesus heals a woman with a bent back, the Lord says, “And ought not this woman, a daughter of Abraham, whom Satan bound for eighteen years, be loosed from this bond on the Sabbath day?” (Luke 13:16).

So the commonality here between them is the Lord pointing out that a woman He is healing is a daughter of Abraham and Paul teaching that those who are in Christ are “Abraham’s seed.” The issue raised is being children and heirs of Abraham.

This kind of language was common in the Jewish world of the beginnings of the Church. Jews understood themselves to be children of Abraham, His descendants, a status that was confirmed not only by genetic descent but also by how one behaves. For instance, Jesus says in John 8:39, “If you were Abraham’s children, you would do the works of Abraham.”

Abraham is mentioned some seventy-three times in the New Testament. So even though we might think of him primarily as the father of the Jewish people, he remains a potent figure for Christians, in most cases, referred to as a forefather in faith. To be a son or daughter of Abraham was a key marker in Jewish identity, and the first Christians continued in that same tradition and considered themselves sons and daughters of Abraham by virtue of their faith in Jesus Christ and not only by genetics. Indeed, in Romans 14, Paul explicitly says that non-Jews can be children of Abraham if they have faith in Christ.

I would like to contrast this sense of what it means to be people of faith with the one that prevails in our current culture.

For most Americans today, including Christians, including Orthodox Christians, being people of faith is put largely in terms of one’s personal self-fulfillment. I am a member of a church or I am a person who prays or I am a person who studies Scripture or other spiritual works because those things fulfill a need that I perceive that I have. I want peace or comfort or social connection or salvation, therefore, I have chosen to be religious or spiritual. This individualistic sense of what it means to be religious or spiritual or even Christian plays itself out in a number of ways.

First, it gives the sense that faith is optional. If I believe that I have a faith need, then I will have faith. But if I don’t think I have that need, then I don’t have to have faith. In other words, religion is treated as a kind of consumer product. If you need it, go buy it, but if you don’t, you don’t have to.

And like a consumer product, religions and churches are subject to market forces. There is competition between them for customers. This is why many churches advertise how they will meet your needs with certain programs, teachings, worship styles, etc.

And since building a consumer base is what drives church life, it can always be altered to the tastes of consumers. Because a church knows that a given music style is most popular, it will adopt that style. Because a church knows that a certain doctrine is unpopular, it will de-emphasize it or stop teaching it.

And on the consumer end of things, believers will let religious institutions know what they expect. And they will vote with their feet or with their dollars if they don’t get what they expect. People stop pledging if they don’t like something the leadership does in their church. People will put pressure on leadership to do things this way or that. Because the customer is always right.

In other words, religion in American culture has become something to be individually chosen, bought and sold, altered according to taste, and subject to the perceived needs and the tastes of adherents and potential adherents.

How different this all is from the image we see in Scripture and in Church history! Early Christians did not approach Jesus and the Apostles with their “needs” or their preferences, expecting that they would get what they wanted. Rather, both the Jews who first believed in Christ and the Gentiles who followed them were concerned about becoming sons and daughters of Abraham.

To become an heir of Abraham according to the promise was in many ways like becoming the citizen of a new nation. If someone wants to become an American citizen, he has to fulfill a lot of requirements. He has to take a test, and he has to take an oath, an oath in which he renounces allegiance to any other nation, pledges to defend the Constitution, and that he takes the oath without any reservation. And once a citizen, he is expected to follow the laws of his new citizenship. But he is also given certain privileges and rights that come with citizenship.

Now imagine if an immigrant to the United States approached the immigration officials and said, “I would like to become a citizen, but it has to be on my terms. I don’t like parts of the Constitution, so I’m going to swear to protect only certain parts. I also would like to hold on to my citizenship in another country. And I’m not taking this oath freely and without reservation, but rather because it’s convenient today. I may change my mind later, too. And once I’m a citizen, I plan to follow only some of the laws, because I don’t really need all those rights. There are some I’m just not planning to use.” If someone did that, he would get his request for citizenship summarily denied.

As children and heirs of Abraham, we are indeed freely here. No one is making us be here. Liberty is something emphasized in both the epistle reading and in the Gospel, indicating that as Abraham’s heirs, we are set free, loosed from bondage to sin and corruption. So it is true of course that any of us could walk out of here at any time. Our belief here is freely offered. Our tithes here are freely offered. Our worship here is freely offered.

Yet once we have believed, we begin to belong. And when we belong, we are part of something larger than ourselves. We are of the family of Abraham, his sons and daughters according to faith and according to our good works. This means that we have taken up a citizenship that has blessings but also expectations and obligations.

We are free to participate or not, but we are not free to call ourselves children of Abraham, to call ourselves Christians, if we do not do Abraham’s works and do not have Abraham’s faith. We are also not really Abraham’s children if we go to the Father of the household of faith, our Lord Jesus Christ, and tell Him what our terms are for participation.

It is true of course that we perceive that we have needs. And of course we also have tastes. It is impossible to escape our awareness of these things, and it is also impossible for us to escape being shaped by our individualistic, consumer society. Yet we also have to understand that this self-centered cultural sensibility is opposed to our identity as Christians. It is not compatible.

An awareness of our need can be the impetus for our entry into the Kingdom of God. But we have to understand what the real need is. We do not need to have things our own way. We do not need to pick and choose what we will follow in the Christian faith. We do need to be freed from sin and death. And we do need to belong to the household of faith that makes us heirs of Abraham and brothers and sisters of the Lord Jesus.

Having believed, we now belong. And in our belonging, we also begin to become. And what do we become? We become adopted sons and daughters of Abraham and therefore of God Himself.

And as that happens, then the words of Paul will describe us, as well:

So we also, when we were children, were held in bondage under the rudiments of the world: But when the fullness of the time came, God sent forth his Son, born of a woman, born under the Law, in order to redeem those who were under the Law, that we might receive the adoption as sons. (Gal. 4:3-4)

To our Lord Jesus Christ therefore be all glory, honor and worship, with His Father and Holy Spirit, now and ever, and unto ages of ages. Amen.

7 comments:

  1. Wonderful thoughts.
    They do leave me puzzling, however, at how these things play out in the details of parish administration/organization. Your points on preference based approaches to the Church will get zero argument from me. It just seems to get more complex, as those who belong and are becoming together, begin navigating the details of parish life…especially in communities that are growing beyond a couple dozen families with a “daddy model” of parish life into a size that necessitates greater empowerment of leaders within a community who are all working together under the guidance of the proistamenos.

    Obviously, the primacy of the virtues of humility and compassion can’t be understated here. This discussion just makes me wonder what it looks like to combat what is antithetical to Christianity in our “self-centered cultural sensibilities” in situations where certain tough decisions must be made more collectively as our parishes continue to grow by the grace of God.

      1. Forgive me for not being able to phrase the question properly.

        I’m definitely not suggesting that.

        I am imperfectly trying to ask…What do you think it looks like for an Orthodox Christian to actively fight against these “self-centered cultural sensibilities” in situations where opinions or perspectives might be solicited as a part of day to day parish interactions?

        A good example might be service on a parish council. I’m not aware of whether or not the Antiochian Diocese utilizes these, so forgive me if it is a bad example.

        1. The context I had in mind was the actual dogma and traditional praxis of the faith itself, where there really is no room for personal preference. There are things about parish life where personal preference or judgment is perfectly permissible, however.

          I wasn’t writing against the idea of having opinions. I was talking about those opinions not becoming what determines the faith of the church.

          1. I see. I suppose I was interested in your perspective on what I now realize may be a somewhat tangential question. Understand if you’d rather not get into it here. Thank you for taking the time to respond.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *