|My favorite fruit of all fruits is the fig. To bite into a plump, ripe fig and taste its honey-like sweetness is pure ambrosia and it compels one to want another and another. I shall return to the fig momentarily. One of the greatest temptations facing the Christian church in the post-modern world is the tendency to mistake religion for faith. The distinguished Orthodox theologian Christos Yannaras writes: “The greatest problem of Christians – and even of the Orthodox – is that they have ‘religionized’ Christianity and have turned the Church into a religion. In this way, they cultivated fundamentalisms, hatreds, divisions, a magical perception and relationship with God, also a competitive disposition of one religion towards another, and, frankly, a self-absorbed view of life.” Metropolitan +Hierotheos of Nafpaktos echos Yannaras’ sentiments when he tells us: “Christianity appeared in the history of mankind as the end of religion and the creation of the experience of the Church. Christ abolished the illness of religion.” Why is the distinction between faith and religion important for our parish as we begin a new Church year?
Religion implies the external elements of belief in God—rites, rituals, cultural customs, church laws, physical structures, and a sense of “membership.” We say we “belong” to a particular church. Religion is often identified with an institution or a variety of theologies, all of which are designed, especially in the West, to speak to reason and logic. On the other hand, faith, in Christian terms, is a personal relationship with God, an unseen, ongoing encounter with the Thrice Holy. It requires surrender and humility and personal behavior reflecting this surrender. It is above all, interior – nurtured by prayer, a matter of heart and soul – not logic or concept. It is recognizing the numinous, as the theologian Paul Tillich termed it: the “beyond in the midst of our life.” It gives rise not to an institution but to a spiritual fellowship (koinonia) — the Church, which draws its origin from God and its strength from that inner ongoing relationship with Him. Faith expresses the Divine Synergy with man. It gives rise to prayerful worship and the living out of spiritual priorities, NOT to a variety of activities that are disconnected from the one holy Truth.
This would be the greatest deception of them all. While religion and faith can be interrelated, faith always precedes religion — before religion must come faith. No matter how weak it may be, it must be faith that defines us, not its external definitions and forms. After all, the primary purpose of Church is the healing and cure of our souls – not the mere preservation or expansion of an institution or its many activities. Yet it can be an emphasis on institution over faith that can cause people to lose focus and stop attending – if a vibrant, enthusiastic, personal depth of relationship with God is missing. This causes liturgical rites to become formality, sermons lack inspiration and fire, and eventually the faith community becomes decidedly anemic. This is what Metropolitan +Hierotheos calls, again, “the illness of religion.” Conceivably, this is why so many of our young adults are identifying themselves in surveys as “nones” when asked to what Church community they belong. (The Pew Research Center, Washington, DC)
Let’s go back to the fig. Jesus identified His feelings about interior faith versus external religion in the parable of the fig tree in Mark 11:12-17. He has made the long trek to Jerusalem and finds Himself hungry. Seeing a fig tree nearby, lush with leaves, He goes to it only to find that while its external leaves appeared full and inviting, they masked the fact that there was no actual fruit – nothing to satisfy His hunger. He sternly cursed the tree saying “May no one ever eat fruit from you again! And his disciples heard it.” (Mk. 11:14) He left there and went to the Temple where he found the money-changers and others selling goods. He turned over the tables angrily and addressed the offenders: “Is it not written, ‘My house shall be called a house of prayer for all the nations? But you have made it a den of thieves.” In each case what Jesus saw was not really what He was suppose to see. It was a front, an appearance which lacked substance. The fig tree and the Temple sellers did not give what they were supposed to – fruit and authentic worship. Instead they provided only barrenness on the one hand and cold commerce on the other.
It was the British philosopher and writer C. S. Lewis who coined the word “Churchianity.” Metropolitan +Antony of Sourozh (+2003), of blessed memory, once gave a series of lectures on the Creed which was entitled “Churchianity vs. Christianity.” In that series he addressed the sad fact that it is easy for us to turn the living relationship of faith into mere institutional membership, genuine belief into the rules and regulations of religion, and the truth of discipleship into lofty, “warm-fuzzy” poetry rather than hard nuts-and-bolts action. Of Jesus condemnation of the fig tree, Metropolitan Antony writes: “Had it been barren, leafless, dead, Christ would not have condemned it. He might even have spoken a word of life and brought it into newness. But this tree stood there gloriously adorned with leaves, telling everyone around that it was enough to come up to it in order to find a harvest of ripe fruits. But there was no fruit. The appearance was there; of reality, there was nothing. The words spoken by Christ are frightening.” When we favor Churchianity over Christianity, religion over faith, externals over the inner life of belief – we become like that fated fig tree and those Temple sellers. We are not what we promised to be and, therefore, like that fig tree, we will eventually spiritually wither and die. Like the misguided Temple sellers, even prayer will leave our hearts and we risk becoming spiritually cold — and numb. Metropolitan +Hierotheos of Nafpaktos confronts us with the sobering truth: “Jesus’ coming abolished the illness of religion and created the Church.” In a sense, we have had too much of one and not enough of the other. We give our energy and make time for Church events, activities, fundraisers, social engagements, etc. while all the while the figs are wilting and dying and we are left with only leaves! Leaves do not nurture.
As we begin this Church year, Jesus summons us to re-order and reshape our faith. We may relate to God/Christ more in terms of a religion than in an ongoing, interior personal relationship. Church for us may be something we go to rather than a lived daily mystery in which we participate every day. We may just go to church out of habit or for cultural reasons, or off and on – oblivious to the fact that a love relationship with God requires commitment, constancy, and faithfulness. What love relationship can last only with an on and off commitment? Our prayer life may be “hit and run” rather than a daily time not only to speak to God but to listen for His voice in stillness. These things speak to the interior nature of our faith, not just its external expressions. This inner life needs to take priority over everything else – everything else. It is the bedrock of Christian Orthodox identity and the foundation of Orthodox asceticism. It is faith lived as a deeply spiritual love relationship with God. To do anything else, reduces our interior life to mere external busyness – and increasingly, over time, our hearts and souls weaken and any true fruit dies within us. Living from the outside-in, or living from the inside-out – that is the choice.
It is time for a re-dedication of our lives to Christ. The fire that came upon the first Christians at Pentecost and inspired them to share their experience of Jesus with the rest of the world is the same fire today. They had no church buildings, no written theology, a minimal organizational structure, no committees or elaborate Cathedral liturgies, no clubs or activities – all they had was a story – about the life and preaching of Jesus the Rabbi from Nazareth and Christ of God. It was a story that was enough to set them ablaze and compel them to bring that wondrous faith to others – often at real personal risk. What about that fire within you? Can you see its light? Can you feel its heat? Is it a passion powerful enough for you to literally redirect and reorganize your life and your lifestyle around Jesus Christ? Let’s put first things first! Our faith and its Church are not social functions – they are the gates to Heaven and the singular way to salvation in Christ. Take a bite of a sweet, fresh fig, savor it – and remember that Jesus still hungers. Don’t just give Him leaves!
Faithfully in the Lord,
(Please find attached Sunday’s Bulletin for your prayerful preparation.)