Address to the 19th Triennial SOCA Address to the 19th Triennial SOCA
Address Delivered at the 19th Triennial Church Assembly of the Serbian Orthodox Church in the United States of America and Canada
"Jesus Christ is the same yesterday and today and to the ages (Hebrews 13:8)." Almost two thousand years have passed from the day when the Apostle Paul wrote these words in his epistle. It was a clear message to the Jewish mind that Paul was emphatically stating that the Lord Jesus Christ is God in the flesh. For only God Who is eternal is the same always. That which is perfect is eternal and therefore has no need to change. He is the I AM; He Who always is.
In the New Testament period in which we are living, we equate the I AM from the book of Exodus in the Old Testament to the I AM in the book of Revelation where the Lord states, "I am the Alpha and the Omega, says the Lord God, Who is and Who was and Who is to come, the Almighty (1:8)."
When the Day of Pentecost had come God established His Church on earth. The Church was filled with the power of the Holy Spirit in the persons of the holy Apostles and those whom they ordained. We see much of this in the Book of Acts. This means that the fullness of the truth was deposited in the Church from the very beginning. Did the Lord Jesus Christ not say, "I am the Way and the Truth and the Life (John 1:46)"?
It is important that, as members of the Body of Christ, we believe and accept this fact. The totality of the truth has always been in the Church. This truth has come down to the present day from the Holy Spirit Who is the Spirit of Truth and One of the Holy Trinity. Our Lord speaks of Him to His disciples, saying, "But the Counselor, the Holy Spirit, Whom the Father will send in My Name, He will teach you all things, and bring to your remembrance all that I have said to you (John 14:26)."
If this were not so, our Lord would have never said to Peter and to the other disciples, "...I will build My Church; and the gates of hades shall not prevail against Her (Matt. 16:18)."
We all accept that these Scriptural references are well-known to us. However, today, more than ever, it is more important to keep them as the unshakeable foundation in our lives and in the life of our holy Orthodox Church.
Some years ago a United Nations report stated that there are no less than 23,000 Christian denominations, sects and cults in the world. Here, in the United States, relatively every television preacher is his own church, independent of all other televangelists. Each one has his or her own ministry. They may appear to share one faith, but they are independent of each other. Even now, new denominations, which call themselves Christian, are appearing all around us, especially in new housing development areas where there are no established churches. News sources have reported that, when new housing neighborhoods are established with no nearby churches, a particular family in a given neighborhood begins to have private Sunday morning services in their home, which soon becomes a public worship center for other new neighbors. Hence, another new denomination is formed.
In observing this reality, we can see it as a natural consequence of revival crusades, which have inundated our nation for over one hundred years. Billy Graham is an example that comes to mind; he has led revivals for over fifty years. Now his son has taken over the ministry from his father. The sad reality, according to statistics, is that there is a complete turnover of people, every five to seven years, of those who attend such revivals, as well as those who attend other Protestant churches. It is obvious that they do not see themselves as belonging to a particular church all their lives, as we Orthodox Christians do. When they use the word "church" they are speaking in an abstract manner.
It is important that you and I are aware of these things because we can easily be deceived by present day charismatic individuals, who also claim to heal the sick. As Orthodox Christians we cannot be and are not intimidated by such events in today's society because we know that Christ our Lord created one Church on the Day of Pentecost, and which continues to hold the total deposit of the truth. Our Lord promised to His disciples, and consequently to us, that his Church will continue to be in the world until He returns as the Bridegroom of the Church in order to claim Her as His Bride.
From the end of the first millennium of the Church, history records the many attacks and untold tragedies which have befallen the Church and Her people to the end of the recent second millennium. During this period many thought that atheistic communism – which controlled all of Russia for seventy years in the last century – would have all but destroyed the Church. Nothing of the sort happened. Actually, the Church re-emerged stronger and healthier than before. Even with the Fourth Crusade of the Roman Catholic Church, which destroyed Constantinople in 1204, or the Ustashi attacks against the Orthodox Serbs in the Balkans during the Second World War, which saw the murder of hundreds of thousands, the Church continued and continues to survive, albeit for a time in a weakened condition.
Why has God allowed such tragedies and sufferings to befall His people? Paradoxically, this reality of suffering, which makes the enemies of the Church rejoice, guarantees that the people of the Church will always be mindful of the fact that the Church is in the world, but she is not of the world. The Church of our Lord Jesus Christ identifies not with this world, but the world which is to come during our Lord's Parousia, His Second and glorious return.
Now we are living in a time in which the Person of the Lord is demeaned and even ridiculed. There is neither respect for the Christian faith nor for the Person of our Lord by an ever-increasing number of people here and throughout the world. It appears that the greatest enemy of the Church today is human apathy, not only among those of other faiths, but, sadly, even among many of our own people. When the book, The Da Vinci Code, was in book stores, and millions of copies were sold, as well as the recent movie of the same name which many thousands have seen, I became very saddened, not to say angry, as many of you did. I saw in this production of both the book and the movie another violent attack on our holy faith.
Yet, even in the face of such realities, our Lord acts, so that more and more people will eventually find the truth. In my daily routine, I like to hear radio preachers and evangelists in case I may hear something that I might not have otherwise learned. Well, a wonderful thing happened recently. Because of The Da Vinci Code, I heard Protestant preachers for the first time refer to Saint John Chrysostom, Saint Ignatius of Antioch, Saint Eirineios of Lyons, and other fathers of our Church in order to prove to their listeners that Jesus Christ was recognized as God, having become man, from the very first days of the Church. He was never regarded as just another human person. I also heard another Protestant preacher speak of the First Ecumenical Council in Nicea, and of the Creed which we continue to recite in our churches, as evidence that the first Christians accepted Christ as God in the flesh. It certainly appears that the Holy Spirit is motivating people who seek the truth to finally turn toward the teachings of the Orthodox Church.
You and I know that the Lord Jesus Christ is God, and the Second Person of the All Holy Trinity. You and I know that the Orthodox Christian Church is the One, Holy, Catholic, and Apostolic Church, which has never changed from the Day of Pentecost to the present day. You and I should know the words of Christ from the writings of Saint John the Theologian who wrote in the Book of Revelation, "I warn every one who hears the words of the prophecy of this book: if any one adds to them, God will add to him the plagues described in this book, and if anyone takes away from the words of the book of this prophecy, God will take away his share in the tree of life and in the holy city, which are described in this book (Rev. 22:18, 19)."
What is the prophecy? It is the existence of the Church on earth and the unadulterated teachings which have been preserved for two thousand years within Orthodoxy.
Now, what is our role in all of this? What is expected from you and from me as members of the true Church, which our Lord gave to us on the day of Pentecost? Do we just attend the Divine Liturgy and the other holy services as an audience watching a stage production or the television? Or do we make our faith real in our everyday lives? We have the most beautiful and awe-inspiring services of any and all Christian bodies. Our services and our sacraments are an indispensable part of our daily lives, and we must hold on to them as an unbroken continuation of our holy faith. But is this all we do?
It is time, brothers and sisters in the Lord, to take a lesson from our brethren in the western Christian tradition who are evangelizing, even though they do not have the total deposit of the truth. This is why they are still searching and changing. Nevertheless, they can teach us valuable lessons in how to be alive in Christ, and to try to live our daily lives as icons of Christ, not only on Sundays, but every day of the week. It was the Samaritan woman who, even though she was considered a heretic, had the true interpretation of Christ as the Savior of the world, while the orthodox Israelites believed that the Messiah was only for them.
There is much that we can do in breaking down the barriers that separate us from one another, even though we are one Church. Yet, we do not live as One Church. We are comfortable in our nationalistic enclosures, and we prefer to remain this way, except probably once a year when we come together on the Sunday of Orthodoxy. We can continue to honor our particular ethnicities because every ethnicity has a rich and ancient cultural tradition, and every cultural tradition makes the tapestry of the Orthodox Church even richer. Ethnicity is valid; secular nationalism is not. Secular nationalism teaches one to remain only in his own separate place and not to be involved in pan-Orthodox endeavors of any kind. How many times have I heard individuals say, "I am Greek first and then I am Orthodox." In my own jurisdiction, we have honored persons of a Greek background who were not Orthodox Christians. What does this teach our young people? It is this kind of secular nationalism that waters down our Orthodoxy.
To live the spirit of Orthodox evangelism is, first, to see one another as members of the Holy Orthodox Church, regardless of our ethnic background. Our nationalism will never be our means of entrance into the Kingdom of heaven; our Orthodoxy will. If we do not share our faith with one another as Orthodox Christians, how in the world will we have the desire to share our Orthodoxy with those who are still seeking the truth? We do not have to knock on doors, as the Mormons and the Jehovah's Witnesses do. All we have to do is reflect the joy of our faith in our everyday life. For example, we should smile more often. A smile is contagious. A smile draws friends to us, while confusing our enemies, if we have any, other than the evil one and the fallen angels. For you and for me to believe that we belong to Christ, and are members of His holy Church, should bring constant joy to our hearts.
As members of the Church all of us are responsible for sharing our faith with others. Moreover, we should publicly support our faith whenever and wherever we can. Look at how the Jewish people defend their faith when it is ridiculed, and the Moslems, as well, protest vigorously when their faith is attacked. We have a beautiful message to impart to friends and strangers. While other religions believe that only selected people will be saved, Orthodox Christianity is open to all people, no matter who they may be. For our Lord came into the world to save all of humanity, if at all possible.
It is our responsibility, then, to impart this message of salvation to everyone around us, by the way we speak, by the way we act, by the way we live. It is the very same message which our Lord imparts to all who hear Him. He is the same, yesterday and today, and to the ages of ages. His message is the same, down through the years, until He returns to claim His people. His ministry began with the saving message, "Repent, for the Kingdom of heaven is at hand (Matt. 4:17)." It continues to remain the same message until He returns. It is the only message of hope and joy and salvation. Therefore, as we continue to live our holy and Apostolic faith, here in the United States of America, let us adhere to the words of the holy Apostle Paul, when he wrote to the Christians of Philippi in the northern Balkans, "Rejoice in the Lord always; again I will say, Rejoice (Philippians 4:4)."