His Grace, Bishop JOSEPH’s Address to St. Athanasius Church
February 16, 2008
Beloved clergy and friends:
I would like to begin by thanking Fr. John, Fr. Richard, Fr. Peter and Fr. Nicholas for their excellent presentations. They have given us good words, which I hope we all remember and take to heart.
Tonight, I will speak of those fleeting moments that pass between the moment we are called to follow our Lord Jesus Christ and the time of our death. After all, our life in this age is about how we will die. By this, I do not mean the circumstances of our death, but rather whether we are prepared to meet the King of Kings and Lord of Lords.
The Church is called the ‘ecclesia,’ which comes from the Greek verb to ‘summon forth.’ The Church is the Body of Christ, called forth from the world. We are those who have heard the word of God and followed Him. We follow our Lord Jesus Christ’s path to the Cross, and take up our own crosses in humility and love.
The parish is the place where this process begins and continues on throughout our spiritual lives. Even those of us who have lived the monastic lives began our journeys as children in the local parish.
What makes a real parish? Is it the teaching or the preaching, the services or the classes? No, what makes the parish is the common devotion of the people to God. It is humble and loving submission to the Creator of all that makes a parish. It is the willingness of all the people to renounce their pride and self-indulgence for the sake of the Kingdom of Heaven that makes a parish. It is the desire of the community to bear the fruits of the Holy Spirit, rather than earning the wages of sin, that creates a true parish.
Before we can worship together, before we can pray together, we must all repent together. After all, a proud heart cannot submit itself in worship to the Living God, nor can one speak to God and be heard when it is filled with self-importance. Only the repentant can be saved, only the humble can be rescued.
This is why we remember the Parable of the Pharisee and the Publican, reminding ourselves of prayer accepted and prayer rejected. God will reject the prayers of the hypocrite, and our children turn from the Faith because of the hypocrisy of their parents and the people of the church community.
While education is important, you can’t educate your children out of noticing your own double-mindedness. Children are innocent, and they detect those with ulterior motives. They know when we come to church only to satisfy our religiosity and justify ourselves like the Pharisee in the parable.
This parish is not for you. If you live only to gratify yourselves, you are not yet Orthodox Christians. This parish is not just for the people who converted in 1987, but also for the people who converted in 2007. Sentimentality will destroy you, because it prevents you from preaching the Gospel to the people living in 2008. Nostalgia is your enemy, and it kills parishes each year, turning them into museums. Do not let this be your fate.
You have diligently followed after the Church of Christ for 20 years, having submitted yourselves to her in 1987. Many of you now realize that the word or repentance has only begun. Yes, repentance is a lifetime struggle. It is an interior battle, not a fight with our neighbor. It is never too late to repent.
Many people fear repentance because they falsely believe that God will not forgive them. They think that as long as they do not repent, they can hold out one more day and hope that their self-made disasters will be forgotten or accidentally change for the good. So, they continue in their insanity, and the problems they created fester without healing.
After all, true salvation is when God saves us from ourselves. He saves us from the curses we have brought upon ourselves, when He ends with His death on the Cross. We participate in this death through the bearing of our own crosses as individuals and as a community.
This is a hard path. We want our parish to serve us, because we are self-centered. We want to do what comforts us, what pleases us, what conforms to our opinions. However, such thinking is a barrier to the grace of God, and we begin to lose our original calling from God and only hear the calling of our own voices. This leads us in circles, taking us nowhere.
We must listen for the voice of God not in our own opinions, but rather in humble submission to the Church. Through the Church, the Holy Spirit speaks to us and guides us.
Look at the many changes that have occurred over the last 20 years, both here and in the Archdiocese as a whole. Do you not see a clear direction? God is moving us. For some this is a cause for joy, and for others, a source of sorrow.
Life is filled with ups and downs, sometimes they come because of our sins, but other times because God sends them to us as motivation for change. Without hardships, we would not move forward. St. Paul said that we should give thanks in all things.
I am pleased with the direction God is moving us, and I hope you are too. Each year, I see positive changes happening in all of our parishes. Good things are happening. God is growing us, both in terms of numbers, but also in terms of spiritual maturity.
This community has endured many struggles, but this is because God is here. Where God does not make His presence known, there is only stagnation and death. Growth, by its very nature, begets pain. But, these are growing pains. It is like weight-lifting: no pain, no gain.
Be worried when there is no pain. Be concerned when you face no opposition. Be afraid when all is well. This means you have ceased to struggle and that you have departed the path of repentance that leads to the Kingdom.
So, I encourage all of you not to abandon God for the sake of pleasure and ease, but continue in your fight to remain faithful to God. Just as you received the Gift of the Holy Spirit over 20 years ago and were called forth from darkness, cherish your response to God’s call to repent. Repentance is a gift. It is the heart of our life in the Church, because it is the path to the heavenly Kingdom.
“Enter through the narrow gate; for the gate is wide and the way is broad that leads to destruction, and there are many who enter through it. For the gate is small and the way is narrow that leads to life, and there are few who find it.” (Matthew 7:13-14).
Fr. Nicholas, I congratulate you not because it is your birthday, but because you have used so many years of your life to help and guide others towards the Heavenly Kingdom.