Listen to The Church
Let’s face it: none of us likes being told what to do. The same culture that constantly caters to our individual tastes discourages us to listen to anyone’s opinion other than our own or the people we have chosen to agree with.
That’s tough for us as Orthodox Christians because our spirituality is based on the Church being more than just one voice among many that we sift through as we decide whose opinion we might or might not adopt. Orthodox Christianity is built on the truth that the Church is the Body of Christ, so-named because Jesus is the Head of the Body. The Church is, therefore, not a set of teachings, perspectives, or opinions, but instead it is where Life is found. Jesus said “I am the Way, the Truth and the Life,” and He gives us the Church as the place where we gather in His Name, invoking His presence though His Spirit, sent to us from His Father, who is offered to us as Our Father.
This all sounds great, but this understanding is tough for us in our “Have it Your Way” modern culture. Just yesterday I ordered French fries and asked for them to be done crispy. And they were (they were REALLY good, too: hot, crispy on the outside, soft on the inside, perfectly salted)! You and I live in a world where we not only order off the menu with dozens of choices, specifying not just what we eat but how we want it cooked. After hundreds of those experiences each day, you think we’re going to find it easy to “listen to the Church” and accept Her teachings without weighing the merits of what the Church says against what we think we’d like to hear? Let me demonstrate how hard this is.
EXAMPLE 1: This Saturday is the Great Feast of Theophany: the celebration of the Baptism of Jesus and the revelation of the Trinity. We literally get to meet God as He is for the very first time. The Church doesn’t just say we should be there for the services. The Church ASSUMES we’d be there—despite it NOT being a Sunday–because, really, with that event to celebrate and enter into, where else could we want to be?
Will we simply and without debate be there or will we hear that as one option that we will consider as we—once again—decide what we want do to (with all the accompanying justifications, of course, for why not going is the RIGHT thing to do).
EXAMPLE 2: The Church offers us life-saving renewal—make that Eternal Life saving renewal—in the gift of the Sacrament of Holy Confession. While some of our Orthodox brethren assume a weekly Confession, our bishops suggest at least 3-4 times year is a good average. But when was the last time we confessed?
If we haven’t had our confession heard recently (i.e. weeks, not months or years) will we accept to live by the Church’s teaching and do so, or will we run that idea through our own highly-developed sense of our individual propriety and justify our actions by putting our reasoning above the Church’s.
So you get the picture. Listening to the Church is tough, and it’s only going to get tougher, unless we decide to place our Faith in God and in the Church that He leads. That’s what real Faith is all about: leaving our own sensibilities aside and committing to follow the Church’s sensibilities.
The Church is not just one more voice of opinion to be considered. St. Nikolai Velimirovich was a Serbian bishop who came to America to serve in the mid-20th Century and is now recognized as a Saint of the Church. Let me close with his words and the words of St. John Chrysostom, whom he quotes, on just what the Church is and why we should listen to Her:
“Why is it necessary to listen to the Church and not listen to one man who thinks against the Church, even though he might be called the greatest thinker? Because the Church was founded by the Lord Jesus Christ, and because the Church is guided under the inspiration of the Spirit of God. Because the Church represents the realm of the Holy, a grove of cultivated fruit trees. If one rises up against the realm of the Holy, it means that he is unholy and why then listen to him? ‘The Church is an enclosure,’ says the all-wise John Chrysostom. ‘If you are within, the wolf does not enter; but if you leave, the beasts will seize you. Do not distance yourself from the Church; there is nothing mightier that the Church. The Church is your hope. The Church is your salvation. The Church is higher than the heavens. The Church is harder than stone. The Church is wider than the world. The Church never grows old but always renews itself.’”
If we’re going to exercise our choice, let’s be wise and choose to listen to the one voice that should be heeded above all others: that of our Lord, Jesus Christ, and the Church He actively leads, even to this day.