The Good New Days
When I was a kid the old people often used the expression, “If I had a nickel for every time….” I don’t hear that much anymore, maybe because a nickel doesn’t go too far these days. Gas, bread, milk, my cellphone bill, a nickel hardly touches it anymore.
But. If I had a nickel for every time I heard someone talking about the end of the good old days in America, well, I might just be a rich man. Gay marriage, abortion, cohabitation, transgenderism, the list goes on and on. Many people can only shake their heads and recall when things weren’t this way, while others - the cultural warriors - strategize and plan to take back America.
The truth is, brothers and sisters, the days are now passed when Christians could count on the surrounding culture to bolster basic morality and reinforce virtue. And while lots of people spend a lot of time lamenting those “good ol’ days”, the painful truth is that the more-or-less civil society with a more-or-less basic moral vision of days gone by made us - Christians - lazy. Instead of fostering real Christian faith and life as it is taught by our Lord and the Apostles we grew content with being bare minimum Christians, getting by on basic morality (which mostly, by the way, zeroed in on matters of sex while most often ignoring issues of money and possessions). For too long, in other words, we have confused being a Christian with being a good, upstanding American citizen. The reality is that they have nothing to do with one another. Or, to say it more accurately, being a good Christian should make you a good citizen, but being a good citizen doesn’t correlate at all to being a faithful Christian. And for too long the two have been almost synonymous. But not any more.
I want to suggest to you, however, that in the midst of all of this rapid moral and social decline the Church has cause to be thankful. We should, in fact, see this as an opportunity. I’ll go further: we should see this as a liberation! We are free to unhitch our notions of Christianity from our idea(l) of America. Now the laziness and lethargy fostered by the old arrangement can give way to a renewed awareness of what it means to be the Church and what it means to be a Christian.
What will this sort of renewal mean for us as Orthodox Christians? It will, first of all, mean a return to the very basics of our faith, the Gospel commandments and teaching of Christ. No longer living according to the bare minimums of basic morality, we are free to enter into the “great and spacious” way of Christ’s commandments. This is the path trod by all of the saints in every generation and every place. It is the only way of salvation.
This renewal will mean, secondly, a return to the Liturgy as the source and well-spring of our existence. We will recover the Liturgy in this way when we keep the Liturgy, not as a weekly obligation, but as the present, here-and-now reality of the Kingdom of God in our midst.
Another aspect of this renewal will be our focus, as Christians, on the politics of the Kingdom. “Politics” comes from the Greek word for city, polis. It has to do with the governance of the “city” or the state in which one is a citizen. But the scriptures tell us repeatedly that, as Christians, our city/polis is in Heaven, not in this world (check out Eph 2.12; Phil 3.20; Heb 11.10, 11.16; 12.22; 13.14; and the entire book of Revelation). And so while we might be Americans and, hopefully, good and faithful citizen of this land, America is not our home. Our politics as Christians is the way the citizens of the Kingdom of God live their lives by the customs and laws of the Kingdom even while in this world. To be a Christian in America today means, in other words, to rediscover what the early Church and the saints have always known, that here we have no lasting city/polis, and that our true city/polis is in Heaven.
With love in Christ, Fr John
“Give me a word!”
For the Christians are distinguished from other men neither by country, nor language, nor the customs which they observe. For they neither inhabit cities of their own, nor employ a peculiar form of speech, nor lead a life which is marked out by any singularity…. They dwell in their own countries, but simply as sojourners. As citizens, they share in all things with others, and yet endure all things as if foreigners. Every foreign land is to them as their native country, and every land of their birth as a land of strangers…. They are in the flesh, but they do not live after the flesh. They pass their days on earth, but they are citizens of heaven. They obey the prescribed laws, and at the same time surpass the laws by their lives…. To sum up all in one word--what the soul is in the body, that are Christians in the world. The soul is dispersed through all the members of the body, and Christians are scattered through all the cities of the world. The soul dwells in the body, yet is not of the body; and Christians dwell in the world, yet are not of the world…. The soul is imprisoned in the body, yet preserves that very body; and Christians are confined in the world as in a prison, and yet they are the preservers of the world. The immortal soul dwells in a mortal tabernacle; and Christians dwell as sojourners in corruptible [bodies], looking for an incorruptible dwelling in the heavens.
~Epistle to Diognetus