Sunday of Orthodoxy
Pan-Orthodox Vespers, March 17, 2019
Saint Andrew Greek Orthodox Church
And when the Son of Man comes, will He find faith on earth? (Luke 18:8)
It seems like just a few days ago, dear fathers and beloved brothers and sisters in Christ—it seems like only yesterday that these piercing words ushered us further into the Triodion period. As a prologue to the Parable of the Pharisee and the Tax Collector, the Lord poses a poignant question to those around Him—to those who believed that they alone possessed the true faith. “When the Son of Man comes, will He find faith on earth?” We misunderstand this question if we think it to mean that the Lord did not possess knowledge of the things to come. He who alone is the Kardiognostes, He who alone knows the hearts of men—He has no weakness of understanding or failure of foresight. He asks this question not for Himself, but for those standing by listening to Him. Therefore, we must consider the intended audience of this most pointed question.
Who was in that audience? People of all kind were naturally drawn to Jesus Christ. Multitudes would gather around Him. His holy presence brought out of the woodwork those who would normally linger on the margins of society: the lame, the sick, the lepers, the demon-possessed, harlots, and tax-collectors. These outcasts and sinners, as they drew closer to Christ, brought glory to our merciful God.
But there were also others who responded to the presence of the Lord: the self-righteous, the power-hungry, the manipulative, the hypocrites, those who practiced secret sins and harbored hidden passions. Among them were certain of the Scribes and Pharisees—a “brood of vipers,” Christ calls them; they operated like snakes in the grass, predators with poisonous fangs and tongues, ready to strike the weary and innocent. These self-righteous schemers approached Christ, not because of their devotion to holiness or any faith in God, but in order to showcase themselves as the only authentic believers and legitimate heirs of an ethnic birthright.
Christ recognized the hypocrisy that was at the very core of their being. And this is why He strongly distinguished between what they preached and what they practiced. He instructed His disciples to do whatever [the Scribes and Pharisees] teach; but not to do as they do, for they do not practice what they teach. He goes on to explain: They tie up heavy burdens hard to bear and lay them on the shoulders of others; but they themselves are unwilling to lift a finger to move them.
We know where this is going, don’t we? These words are familiar to us; we hear them every Holy Thursday evening as Christ pronounces the condemnation: But woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! For you lock people out of the kingdom of heaven. For you do not go in yourselves, and when others are going in, you stop them. Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! For you cross sea and land to make a single convert, and you make the new convert twice as much a child of hell as yourselves. It is to such people as these that Christ directed His pointed question: Will the Son of Man find faith on the earth when He returns?
Tonight, dear friends, as we gather to celebrate the Triumph of Orthodoxy, we will recite portions of the proclamation of the 7th Ecumenical Council, the Council that helped to restore the holy icons to the life of the Church. With these words we proclaim that through beauty and art, truth and holiness can be experienced—and experienced by everyone. This Triumph of Orthodoxy was indeed a glorious victory for the unchanging dogma of the Church. But I invite you to consider another great victory that this Council achieved—a pastoral victory, a triumph of brotherly love.
The 7th Ecumenical Council, like all divinely-inspired councils of the Church, found a way to restore unity among all believers. We tend to think that after this council there were winners and losers, that there were people who were put to shame and people who were proclaimed as victors. The truth is that the great achievement of this Council lies in the fact that it paved the way for brothers and sisters who were divided along ideological and theological lines to once again be one in Christ.
Yes, the Fathers of the Church restored the Holy Icons. But they also found ways to embrace their brethren who had for decades been regarded as heretical and schismatic. They were not concerned merely with wooden icons; rather, the Fathers concerned themselves equally with the living and breathing icons of Christ that stood before them, that is, their brethren, who were unable to share in the Holy Eucharist. And so, in order to restore unity, the Holy Synod decreed that in regions where there was both a former iconoclast hierarch and an iconophile hierarch, the sacred see would go to the former iconoclast.
Dear brethren, do you see?
Do you see how the Church, in truest Orthodox fashion, looks after Her children like a loving mother? Do you see how in her desire to restore unity, She not only embraced former heretics and schismatics, but rewarded them for their bold return to the fullness of faith?
We often speak of “the mind of the Fathers.” But we might also speak of “the heart of the Fathers,” a heart full of brotherly love and forgiveness and yearning for reconciliation and peace.
Today, I wonder if we possess the same mind and heart, the same ethos as the Fathers of the Seventh Council. I wonder if the Hierarchs of our time—my own brothers and I—have the same courage, the same confidence in God to bless the merciful and the peacemakers.
Are we as interested in embracing a brother who was once lost and dead? Or do we rather seek to preserve a self-declared “authenticity”? Are we good shepherds like Christ, Who went beyond the fold to bring back the lost and straying lamb, Who accepted with kindness the contrite harlot and received with gladness the penitent publican? Or do we push them away from our churches, thinking thereby that we preserve a self-proclaimed “purity”? Is this not the purity of the Scribes, the authenticity of the Pharisees? Why extend to people an invitation in the name of the Lord, only to shut the door on them? Why would we “lock people out of the kingdom of heaven”?
And when the Son of Man comes, will He find faith on earth?
For the Fathers of the Seventh Ecumenical Council, it took tremendous trust to restore former iconoclasts to positions of leadership and pastoral care. It took great faith in the power of the Holy Spirit to renew lives and vocations and ministries. If the Lord Jesus Christ were to return today … would He find this same faith among us? Would He find a faith that overcomes all things for the sake of our brothers and sisters? Would He find a faith that, in love, “bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things”? (1 Cor. 13:7)
On the Sunday of Orthodoxy, the ethos of inclusion—not of exclusion—ought to permeate our hearts and minds. But friends, this ethos is never the sole responsibility of the Hierarchy. Yes, we the bishops are to set the example; but everyone in the Church, without exception, is to embrace “the other” as a brother and sister. The ethos of inclusion is grounded in the Great Commission: to teach all that Christ commanded and to baptize all nations in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit.
Is this the foundation of our Metropolis? Is this the ethos of our parishes? Yes, we celebrate when an adult embraces the Orthodox faith, but I am afraid that we still have unspoken and invisible structures in place that allow for multi-tiered degrees of Orthodoxy. We say we want to share the faith with others, but we subconsciously consider them “less than us,” “lower than us.” We say we love each other, but we still consider some “xenoi”—outsiders, Johnny-come-latelies, second-class parishioners.
When we repeat the proclamation of faith in a few minutes, remember that this attitude is not the faith of the Fathers; this is not the faith of the Orthodox. We can—we must—do better. After all, when the Lord comes again in His glory, He will look to find faith on earth. May our love—our inclusive, unconditional love for each other, reflecting His inclusive and unconditional love—may that love serve as the foundation of our faith, for the glory of God and the salvation of all peoples. Amen.