YOU ARE NOT THE STANDARD

by V. Rev. Paul Schneirla

 

This is the faith of the Apostles
This is the faith of the Father
This is the faith of the Orthodox
This is the faith which has
established the Universe

 

When I was a 'teenager a charming new girl joined our group one summer. She described her background and status very simply; she said, "Dad's in the oil industry." Recalling such names as Sinclair and Rockefeller we were suitably awed. Our attitude toward her may have changed somewhat when we later found that Dad was a part-time attendant at a gas station.

Our image is very important both to ourselves and to others, it conditions our conduct and potentialities and controls the reactions of others toward us. Where in the world or in history can you find a more triumphant self-image than the Orthodoxy Sunday Troparion we have just read? On these annual Sundays when we meet to commemorate the victories of the Orthodox Church we proclaim ourselves the co-workers of the Apostles and Fathers and co-heirs of the Creator of the Universe. Our Church is one, holy, universal, as old as time; glorious "without spot or wrinkle" and infallible. Her history is a pageant of success and sanctity through the centuries, overcoming sin and error and always on the winning side. Temporary defeats in one century are corrected in the next by the divine power and inspired leaders. So obvious was our invincibility and self-assurance before World War I that Sir William Ramsey could write in 1908 that the Orthodox Church was, "not a lovable power, not a beneficent power, but stern, unchanging … sufficient for itself, self-contained and self-centered." (From Luke the Physician, quoted in Baynes and Moss, Byzantium. 1949, p. XXV)

Basking in the inherited vestments of Byzantine glory this evening we can savor this self-sufficiency, assurance, pride in a rich heritage and confidence in the golden promise of our future victories as members of the one, true church of the Creator and Sustainer of the Universe. To challenge this conviction would be to teach heresy and rob the Church of her reason for being.

But should we awaken in the early hours before tomorrow's dawn, and should our mind turn to the Church we know, shall we be able to summon again the potent self-image of this triumphant Vespers for our comfort and security? Since 1908 so many reverses dot our path that some might suppose that our victorious march through history had turned into a retreat. The Iron Curtain has fallen around Eastern Europe, the heartland of Orthodoxy, and while we know the Church has survived somehow until now, it is obviously on the defensive and we are uneasy and uncertain about the price its leaders pay for its existence. We love our coreligionists and excuse their human limitations but non-Orthodox observers do not appear to be impressed by Orthodoxy's witness elsewhere in Europe and the Near East. Some of our American prophets and theologians evidently are unimpressed also for they proclaim that the Orthodox future lies in America.

That is a flattering possibility, of course, but what of American Orthodoxy? What of this tiny minority of recent immigrants from the culturally disadvantaged parts of the world? We claim to be ecumenically minded but national and even tribal divisions keep us shattered into competing jurisdictions tolerated, or is it maintained? by hierarchical indifference, or is it prelatical pride? Our pan-Orthodox endeavors are cautious, tentative, hamstrung by ethnic interest and parochialism. Leaders who comfortably preside over prosperous dioceses are unable to find funds for the proper support of an essential program for our students caught in the chaos of the modern campus. You have heard Father Ruffin ask for the final payment on the Orthodox Center at Wayne State University. The Center is not the result of national leadership, it came from the grassroots, from the Detroit Orthodox community. Our desperately needed national student program survives on very little money or moral support. Every national group has at least one rival diocese based on motives so morally low and so practically ridiculous that our more sensitive laity sometimes turn in disgust to other Christian bodies, or conclude that the Church cannot be taken seriously by decent and thinking men. Nor does it appear that relief is to come from the self-proclaimed prophets and would-be reformers, nourished on sour grapes and neuroses, who are currently busy straining out gnats, swallowing camels and adding to the confusion. All of us will admit that this harsh description of American Orthodoxy is not only true but errs on the side of restraint.

While we extol our ancient Saints and Fathers we know that we are shabby saints indeed, that our scholarship is often insufficiently rigorous, and that our Orthodoxy, of 1969 in the United States, demands faithful who are stronger in dedication and devotion and in the spirit of humble self-sacrifice than are we. Our Image of the Orthodoxy of Orthodoxy Sunday: of by-gone victories of the Saints and Fathers and heroes and missionaries of the past, shames us when we frankly confront it with an honest self-image.

We Orthodox live in a spiritual world dominated by a Church that claims to be the unique survival and only authentic witness to the earthly ministry of Our Lord Jesus Christ, but we know ourselves to be inadequate to these pretensions. How can we sinners represent the Saints of the Past? Are the Fathers to be explained by our ignorance? What of our claim to be the one, true, heavenly Church of Christ when anyone can see that we are divided, weak and in internal conflict?

There are many possible reactions to our dilemma. Surely no one of us would pretend to deny the difficult realities of the Church in which we live today. We could not convince ourselves and others would only laugh. There is another solution that may offer hope. We may face our inadequacies squarely and draw the inevitable conclusions: we are neither Saints nor Fathers of the Faith, and hence the Orthodox Church is not the unique Church we formerly claimed. Let us put aside our triumphal pretensions, forget the exclusiveness of the past, the stern, unchanging self-sufficiency of half-a-century ago, and accept the facts. We have watched the Roman Catholic Church resign her once arrogant claims to uniqueness, and our Protestant brethren have long acknowledged that none of them is the only successor of Christ. Have we, recognizing our moral, intellectual and institutional limitations, the presumption to assert that Orthodoxy is unique, when even the Papacy is abdicating its infallibility and universal jurisdiction? Of course we have not. .And does it not follow that we then phase out our little ethnic organizations, quietly resign our exclusive claims, offer communion to all who come, and merge with the equally disillusioned Christians of all the other denominations, wiping out the ugly ancient scars of schism and division?

Such a course would be honest and mandatory if it were not for one essential distinction we frequently fail to make. We are indeed ignorant sinners, poorly organized and led, and torn by petty quarrels and childish differences. But we are not the standard. 'The standard is this triumphant faith we proclaim. The standard is this unique Church of which we are unworthy members. This is no discovery. When the priest or bishop absolves the sinner he claims to be the inheritor of Christ's power, given to the Apostles, to bind and loose on earth and in heaven, and then one prayer describes him as "an all unworthy sinner," just before he pronounces the absolution. For the priest does not forgive in his name, nor does he preach himself. He speaks for Christ, he preaches Christ, we accept him with his inevitable human faults, because he is not the standard. A sinful priest may not excuse others whose sins may in fact be less grave than his for the very reason that he is not the standard. Nor may we, conscious of our shortcomings, betray the standard of the Church because we are her unworthy representatives, weak, confused and ashamed of ourselves.
We Orthodox are prone to identify the Church with our shortcomings. Our well-grounded humility is then transferred to the Church and we fail to uphold her divine mission, At times we have spoken or acted as though we must apologize for Orthodoxy. Our Christian charity. because we are painfully conscious of the chasm between our individual gifts and the perfection of the Church, overflows and we blur the clear distinctions between the faith and bodies whose separation from it are more than accidents of history. We lack the courage to witness to the truth in its purity because our personal witness falls so far short of our image of what we should be.

Our Orthodox pride, our assurance, our exclusiveness has nothing to do with us. Nor does our Orthodoxy guarantee our sanctity or salvation. There is a revealing legend about one of the Fathers of the Desert. 'One day as Saint Makarios wandered among those ancient Egyptian tombs wherein he had made himself a dwelling place, he found the skull of a mummy, and. turning it over with his crutch, he inquired to whom it belonged and it replied. 'To a pagan.' And Makarios, looking into the empty eves. said : 'Where is thy soul?' .And the head replied. 'In hell.' Makarios asked, 'How deep?' And the head replied. 'The depth is greater than the distance from heaven to earth.' Then Makarios asked, 'Are there any deeper than thou art?' 'The skull replied. 'Yes, the Jews arc deeper still.' And Makarios asked. 'Are there any deeper than the Jews?' To which the head replied, 'Yes, in sooth, for the Orthodox Christians whom Jesus Christ hath redeemed, and who despise His doctrine and die in their sins. are deeper still.'

We love less than we should, but we may not communicate promiscuously with those whom ancient errors still separate from us. We are not the Saints we should be, but we may not betray the Saints who taught and died for Orthodoxy. We are handicapped by stupid loyalties to nonessential internal divisions, but we may not join indifferently with those who are divided from us by essential conflicts of faith and doctrine. Our ancestors clung to Orthodoxy in the face of butchery and bribery after the fall of Byzantium, our coreligionists behind the Iron Curtain confess Orthodoxy at the cost of comfort, career and sometimes survival. We may not betray Orthodoxy because a false humility leads us to suppose that we are the standard and that the standard is therefore as weak, as unprepared and as unworthy as we are. We must be faithful but we are not the standard of the Faith. That …

is the faith of the Apostles
is the faith of the Fathers
is the faith of the Orthodox
is the faith which established the Universe.

On Orthodoxy Sunday, March 2nd, the Very Reverend Paul Schneirla of Brooklyn preached at the city-wide pan-Orthodox Vespers sponsored by the Eastern Orthodox Council of Grater Detroit in Detroit, Michigan. The sermon was delivered at Saint George's Syrian Orthodox Church.

From Word Magazine
Publication of the Antiochian Orthodox Christian Archdiocese of North America
March 1969
pp. 4-5

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