The Sundays after Pentecost
by Archbishop Dmitri of Dallas and the South
The Gospel lessons for the Sundays after Pentecost are related generally to the theme of the Church and particularly of the Church "in the world."
The Church has been sent to do the work of her Master.
"Go ye therefore, and teach all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Ghost: Teaching them to observe all things whatsoever I have commanded you..." (Matthew 28:19-20) "...as My Father hath sent Me, even so send I you" (John 20:21).
As the perpetuation of the Incarnation, the Church's message has to be Christ's message. Thus, the world will react to the Church exactly as it did to Christ when it comes to understand her mission.
"If the world hate you, ye know that it hated Me before it hated you. If ye were of the world, the world would love his own: but because ye are not of the world, but I have chosen you out of the world, therefore the world hateth you. Remember the word that I said unto you. The servant is not greater than his lord. If they have persecuted Me, they will also persecute you; if they have kept My saying, they will keep yours also. But all these things will they do unto you for My name's sake, because they know not Him that sent Me." (John 15:18-21)
Many have pointed to the Church's unpopularity in today's world. As a matter of fact, it is usually the case that the more faithful she is to her calling, the more unpopular the Church becomes. Our Lord was in constant conflict with the society of his day. Likewise it is not unusual for the modern Church to find herself in conflict with our contemporary society.
For this reason it is difficult to understand why so many "churchmen" despair of what seems to them to be the inadequacy of the Church to meet the world's perceived needs. The religious press, past and present, has done a remarkable job of fueling agitation among sincere Christians concerned about doing the right thing, with statements similar to the following:
"The Church is in disrepute because she has failed to help man in his hour of need." "The Church is a kind of ghetto into which men have retreated in order to blind themselves to the world's needs."
Many attempts have been made to find a secular meaning or world-centered interpretation for the Gospel. All of our Lord's teachings about men in their sinful condition, the necessity for their salvation, the redemption through the Incarnation, and Christ's promise of a Kingdom in the world to come, are being written off as mythological expressions of social problems.
The Gospel lesson for the sixth Sunday after Pentecost, Matthew 9:1-8, illustrates plainly and simply this basic conflict about which we have been talking. It demonstrates the difficulty the world has in accepting Christ's (and consequently the Church's) message. When the people brought a man "sick of the palsy" to Jesus, He performed the miracle of which this man was most in need: "Son, be of good cheer, thy sins be forgiven thee." The Savior was first and foremost concerned with the condition of the man's inner being, his reconciliation with God. He saw him as He sees everyone: a person with an eternal call, the successful fulfillment of which is determined by the purity of one's heart, not the health of his or her body.
The scribes represented the world's reaction to Christ and His work. First of all they were blind to God's presence and power in their midst. "This Man blasphemeth." John the Evangelist tells us that the world generally does not recognize its own Creator. "He was in the world, and the world was made by Him, and the world knew Him not." (John 1:10). Secondly, the scribes evidently thought that Jesus should have focused on (what in their minds was) a more difficult and important act of healing. They thought to themselves, "It is easier to say, thy sins be forgiven thee, than to say, arise, and walk." Jesus, in order to show that He had the power to forgive sins on earth, that He had purposely directed His efforts towards granting forgiveness, and as a sign that forgiveness was indeed the greatest of gifts, said to the sick of the palsy, "Arise, take up thy bed, and go unto thine house."
The core of the Church's message is still the forgiveness of sins. If she is to remain Christ's Church, this will continue to be her central message. "Repent, for the Kingdom of Heaven is at hand!" The world, however, does not want to hear about sins, repentance or forgiveness. Nor does it want to hear of another Kingdom towards which one must orient one's life. This explains why even the term "Church" has become an embarrassment for many. The word Church (in Greek, ecclesia) means "called out."
Members of the Church are those who are "called...out of darkness into (God's) marvelous light," a "holy nation" (1 Peter 2:9) consecrated to serve the King of Heaven and not the prince of this world. Those who would not recognize the Christian as having a particular call to be separate, to be in the world but not of it, are uncomfortable with the term "Church" preferring instead to use other names for their communities. Even if they are unfamiliar with the origins of the word, they at least know that it is linked to a very different understanding of Christianity than that which is preached by many popular, "in-step-with-the-times," pastors and spiritual leaders.
Thus, we conclude by saying that unless the Church becomes something other than what Christ made her, she will remain unpopular with the world. We must remember, however, that if the Church is true to her calling, her unpopularity is Christ's unpopularity.
Publication of the Diocese of the South
Orthodox Church in America