The Age of Taking Church for Granted is Over

Feast of Ss. Thekla and Silouan / First Sunday of Luke, September 24, 2017
II Timothy 3:10-15; Luke 5:1-11
Very Rev. Fr. Andrew Stephen Damick

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

The age of taking church for granted is over. We Christians just largely haven’t realized it yet.

But the evidence is everywhere. Most established churches see no more than about 1/3 of their total population on a Sunday morning. Most Christian kids going off to college have little understanding about the narrative of the Bible, its central figures, or what the Gospel is. Of course, most Christian adults don’t know those things either these days. About 1/4 of all Americans now identify as religiously unaffiliated, checking off the “none of the above” box when asked what church or religion they belong to.

It used to be that most people in our country simply went to church. They simply attended Sunday School. The Biblical allusions made in popular culture were easily accessible to them. The basic culture of at least some kind of religious commitment was just normal. And churchgoers were real churchgoers. People who didn’t come to church most Sundays didn’t think of themselves as faithful Christians.

But that’s definitely changed. Even those who don’t check off that “none of the above” box for religious affiliation aren’t as committed as they once were.

We could spend hours talking about why this is, and we could spend hours fretting about it and wishing that we could get back to the good old days when no stores were open on Sunday morning because they just wouldn’t have any customers. But I don’t think that would help very much.

And I’m also not convinced that the good old days were necessarily that good. A church life that is taken for granted is actually not really a Christian life. Nor is it a true life in the Church. It’s more about identity and social connection than about Jesus Christ.

Anyway, what is the point? The point for us as Christians is always to ask: What is it that I can do today to be saved? What can I do today to become holy? What can I do today so that I am preparing for the resurrection?

So to answer this problem that I began with, that the age of taking church for granted is now over, we have to ask what it is that will help us not to take church for granted. What is it that will help us not to take Jesus Christ for granted? What is it that will keep me on the royal path toward the Kingdom of Heaven?

One of the saints we celebrate today is a man named Silouan the Athonite. Silouan was an uneducated Russian peasant who in 1892 went to the Holy Mountain, that is, Athos in Greece. Before his pursuit of monasticism at St. Panteleimon Monastery there, he had lived in Tambov province in the Russian Empire.

He was a big man, a powerful man. And he even had been a violent man. He once got in a fight and punched a man so hard in the chest that the man almost died. And his agony over that sin sent him to the Holy Mountain to begin repenting.

There is too much to say about his life to recount it all today, but I will at least summarize and say that his intense life of repentance from that point onward led to his becoming possibly the greatest saint of the twentieth century. He died in 1938, which is after some of us here were born, and he was canonized in 1988, not even thirty years ago.

There is a book that details his life and includes his writings, which are all mostly brief fragments—no theological treatises or longer works—and it is titled Silouan the Athonite, written by his disciple Archimandrite Sophrony Sakharov, who will likely himself be canonized someday.

To help us to address this question of what we can do about the fact that church life is no longer taken for granted, I would like to read a brief selection from St. Silouan’s writings. This is a short piece included in the chapter titled “On Love,” and it directly addresses this uneven reality that we have in our churches today. And I especially love it because it begins with an allusion to the Lord’s meeting Ss. Luke and Cleopas on the road to Emmaus, where they said afterward, “Did not our hearts burn within us as He talked with us on the road?” Listen closely:

‘Did not our heart burn with us?’ said the Apostles after Christ drew near them. So does the soul recognise and love her Lord, and the delight of His love is a burning delight.

In heaven there is one and the same love in the hearts of all, but on earth some there are that greatly love the Lord, others who love Him in small degree, while still others love Him not at all.

The soul that is filled with love of God is oblivious both of heaven and of earth. The spirit burns, and invisibly beholds the Desired One, and the soul sheds many sweet tears and is unable to forget the Lord for a single second, for the grace of God gives strength to love the Beloved.

So we hear Silouan acknowledging even in his own time that there are various levels of those who love God—greatly, to a small degree and not at all. This is like our time, as well. And we can even look at ourselves and probably see that story told of each of us. There are times in my life when I do not love God at all or when I love Him only a little or (I hope) when I love Him greatly.

But listen to his main point: It is about recognizing and loving the Lord. I’m especially fascinated with where he says, “The soul that is filled with love of God is oblivious both of heaven and of earth.”

We may tend to think of being good Christians as being about turning away from earth and toward heaven. Or we may think about it as bringing heaven down to earth in some sense, to give some sanctification to our daily life. And both those ideas are true to an extent.

However, if we conceive of Christian life in terms of “heaven” and “earth” and leave it there, we have missed the mark. The point is to recognize and love Jesus Christ. He is, as Silouan puts it, “the Desired One,” the One for Whom our hearts burn with delight as He speaks with us on the road of life.

It is important, of course, to continue the habits of church attendance, of Bible reading, of giving, and so on. But when we see ourselves or others slacking off in those habits, we should realize that the cure for that inconsistency is not saying “try harder” or shaming people into measuring up. Even if those approaches work for a little while, they will not work for long. And for many people, they simply will not ever work even for a little while.

The question is why. Why are we in church? Why do we invite others into this life that we have chosen? Why is being here every Sunday and doing all these other spiritual actions actually absolutely critical for our eternal destiny and even present sanity?

It is because of what St. Silouan says: “The grace of God gives strength to love the Beloved.” We are here to love Jesus Christ, and the tears of repentance that we shed when we fail to love Him as we must are what open us up to receive that grace. And when we love the Beloved, our Lord and our Savior and our God, Jesus Christ, then we will find that we are energized to engage in all these acts of love.

When a man does not say “I love you” to his wife or take care of his home or teach his children or do all the other things that a good husband does, the cure is not simply to “try harder.” It is to love his beloved, to return to that delight in his wife that calls forth these actions of love from within him. The problem is not that he does not feel anything for her. It is that he has turned away from her. If he turns toward her, then he can see her again. And as he sees her, he will love her. And that love will be expressed in actions.

It is not an emotion that we seek after. We are not called to feel good about Jesus. We are called to recognize Jesus, as Silouan says, which is what makes us able to love the Lord. Our problem is not that we’re not trying hard enough. Our problem is that we have turned away and no longer recognize the Lord.

So let’s take a moment today and seek to recognize Jesus. Look for Him. See Him—really see Him. He is the One Whom we seek. He is the One Whom we desire. He is the One Whom we have come here today to meet.

To the One Who has recognized us and loved us, our Lord Jesus Christ, be all glory, honor and worship, with His Father and the Holy Spirit, now and ever, and unto ages of ages. Amen.

5 comments:

  1. I needed to read this today, at this very moment. Thank you for the wisdom in this writing Father. It has reached at least one soul whose been “trying harder”.

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