During my 14 year process of conversion to Eastern Orthodoxy, I often looked upon and yearned for the Orthodox Church as if it were the Promised Land, as if reconnecting with Apostolic Christianity would somehow solve my many problems. And when one’s disaffection with one’s original denominational status is the result of repeated disaffecting experiences, the advantages of the unobtainable ‘Other’ only grow. While I can only speak for myself, I would guess this is a common dynamic.
Since becoming Orthodox, I have realized that the same crowd of sinners that were milling around my previous churches and various parachurch organizations are all somehow miraculously present and accounted for in my current Orthodox contexts. If I were converting to escape unpleasant situations or difficult people, then I would have probably been better served to deal with said situations and people in my original Presbyterian and Evangelical context, one with which I was most familiar.
But I wasn’t looking for the perfect church. Nor was I looking for a place to have my needs met.
I have looked in vain for an Orthodox Church that claims to be the right church for you or me, or has gone through the evolution from overhead projectors to PowerPoint, or has supplemented the choir with a rock band for Liturgy, or has transformed to sanctuary into a kind of entertainment theatre complete with stage and screen. It’s not that Orthodox Churches (that I am aware of) are being intentionally counter-‘contemporary-Christian-culture’; they just don’t care. They are not concerned about attracting ‘seekers’ with the latest this or that, not concerned with ‘packaging’ Christianity in a form that’s palatable to a section of society that has been perhaps turned off by the strident fundamentalism of their nightmares. The Orthodox are not bothered that their services are long and uncomfortable, that they chant everything and stand for everything (except the sermon, at least in my church). This is simply the way things are done.
The Orthodox Church is, instead, the community drawn by the preaching of the gospel and being formed by participating in the Church’s sacraments. It is a community of sinners. At its worse it remains a community of sinners. At its best it becomes increasingly a community of repenting sinners. The Church, by which I mean the local Church, is more a hospital for recovering sin-aholics than it is a museum of saints. And this, truth be told, is what finally, after an initial infatuation with its theology and its history, drew me into the Orthodox Church. I found Christ there. Not the easy Jesus of the ‘Sinner’s prayer’ (just say this prayer and you’ll be ‘saved’); not the Jesus of the Sistine Chapel Final Judgment scene, with the horrific figures of the damned at Christ’s left hand being dragged away by demons into eternal hellfire; but rather the Jesus who himself said that he had come to seek and save the lost, and who was known to say things like ‘It’s not the righteous who need a savior, but sinners.’
In my previous life I found it increasingly jarring to constantly be claiming to be ‘saved’ (as my theology said that I was) on the one hand while coping so dysfunctionally with conflict and difficulty (another way of saying ‘I was sinning’). My theology, and the churches associated with it, really struggled over what to do with sinners who had already said the ‘sinner’s prayer’ and had been baptized and gone through the membership class. Once one was ‘saved’, one was on the road to progressive ‘victory over sin’. I couldn’t imagine what ‘victory over sin’ looked like other than not sinning. But I was still caught in behaviors and attitudes that, however one might wish to explain it or cover it or excuse it, were still sin. Was I, therefore, not saved? Moreover, I was in a position of leadership in a series of churches and institutions. How could I as a leader and a teacher still be struggling with these sorts of things? I had observed that it does not go well for church leaders who are outed as ‘sinners’. The pressure to not have any problems or issues is immense. I found it easiest to conform outwardly, until the internal dissonance grew too great to ignore.
For the Orthodox, sin, and our constant warfare with our passions, and our inundation in the consequences of our sins and the sins of others – this is our common lot. And just as Jesus didn’t sit on some platform above filthy humanity and send down salvation messages from the safety of heaven but was incarnate as one of us in our midst, so his Church is not some higher-than-thou, holier-than-thou institution passing judgment on everyone else who does not measure up. Instead the Church through her sacraments and liturgical worship is the presence of Christ in the midst of the people – the bunch of sinners – He is drawing to himself. We are like blind Bartimeus crying out, the woman reaching through the crowd to touch the hem of his cloak, the leper who is unclean, dead stinking Lazarus in his tomb. And Jesus comes to us, calls us to himself, feeds us with himself, bids us to follow him, and tells us to show the same mercy, love and kindness that he is showing to us.
This is the essence of the Tradition that has come to us. We treasure it because here we are finding forgiveness, and mercy, and healing, and wholeness and life. And by responding, we haven't simply changed our status, we have started on a journey, we have engaged in a relationship. And at our best, we are aware that we are surrounded by others on the same road, responding to the same Lord, learning what it means to live in response to his great mercy. So I am following. Step by step. Free to deal honestly with my sins and shortcomings for the first time in my life. Free to begin to experience salvation (and the reconciled relationships that salvation means), not just say (and hope) that I am somehow ‘saved’.
Because the Orthodox Church is a safe place for sinners like me, it may not have the glitz that a lot of the so-called Protestant worship palaces have, or the crowds like the latest Christian personalities can attract. But Jesus is there. The gospel is there. And grace is there. And repentance is there. And the way of salvation is there. And reconciliation with the Trinity, and with the other sinners around us. And transformation. And Theosis.