No Christian is an Alone Christian, and an Alone Christian is No Christian
“Christianity from the very beginning existed… as a community…Nobody could be Christian by himself, as an isolated individual, but only together with 'the brethren’... Christianity means a 'common life,' a life in common.”
Fr. George Florovsky, a theologian who died not too long ago, gave this message with the hope of attacking one of the greatest heresies of modern times: individualism.
He noticed in the culture and churches around him, like an endemic, a tendency that would have been alien to nearly every Christian before us: the privatization of religion; the idea that one’s faith is one’s own, or that one can be a Christian outside of a community. Our beloved Evangelicals have summed this up for us all too well: “It’s me and Jesus.”
Once a missionary was visiting Mount Athos and called out to a monk, “Do you have a private relationship with Jesus Christ?” The monk scratched his brow for a while, with his big, bushy Greek eyebrows, and then replied, “Well, I prefer to share my relationship with Jesus Christ.” To the monk, the idea of having a closed off relationship with Jesus was unfathomable; His faith with God and his communal life with his brothers was one and the same.
But Florovsky was not just critiquing the protestant churches. He was also aware of the same problem in the Orthodox world, where individuals sometimes feel they can live out the Christian life apart from a family in Christ – praying, reading scriptures, and receiving the Eucharist, but without ever bothering to scrub floors or dine together with the same group of people week after week.
To be a Christian is to live in a community, along with all the bumps and dirt that comes with it.
In the Epistle to the Hebrews, St. Paul urges the Church: “Let us consider how to spur one another on to love and good deeds. Let us not neglect meeting together, as some have made a habit, but let us encourage one another, and all the more as you see the Day approaching.…”
“As the Day is approaching.” Our Final Judgment is near, and what does Paul tell the us: ‘Stay together;’ ‘Don’t lose the habit of “assembling;’ ‘Encourage one another and spur each other on to do good deeds and to love.’ You would think he’d say, “Your final judgment is near, so quickly get away from those parishioners who make noise in the church and distract you, or your brother who doesn’t wear deodorant and clearly keeps you from praying (don’t worry, this is a merely hypothetical situation), …get away from all that and go in your cozy cell to meditate.’ But no, he says the very opposite: ‘Stick together all the more;’ ‘Pray together;’ ‘Work out your salvation as one, united family.’
To be a Christian is to live in a community.
But why is this?
What does coming to church to sit next to that fellow who always sings off key, or to put up with my crazy priest week after week…what does this have to do with my relationship with God?
One day, while I was living at the monastery in Greece, I was invited to a birthday party. Yes, monks have birthday parties too! One of the brothers had just turned 60, and so the whole community gathered in an upper room for cake and tea. The scene always brings a smile to me. All 27 monks sat in a circle, with their black robes, thick leather belts, long, and unkempt beards, telling jokes or sharing memories as they sipped their local tea. Then a moment came when the crowd of black grew quiet, and the abbot told a story:
‘A man once had a vision, in which he was first taken down to hell and afterwards up to heaven. In the depths of hell, he found himself in a room with a large table, covered with all the most delicious foods fathomable. Around that table sat a crowd of all kinds of people, ferociously hungry. Now, on looking closer, the man noticed something peculiar. Each person, in front of his plate of food, had only one long fork to eat with. Try as they could, the fork was so long that they couldn’t get the food into their mouths. They waved their forks about, knocking over dishes and smacking each other in the face, but no one ever once managed to eat a single bite of the delicious meal.
Then the man was taken up into heaven, and sure enough he saw a similar room with a similar table with all the tastiest dishes. And, to his surprise, the guests at the heavenly table also had long forks, just like he had seen before. But something was different here. Each guest took their long forks, and reached over to feed the person sitting next to them. In this way, sharing the banquet, everyone was satisfied to the full.’
To be a Christian is to be in a community. As an old ditty went, which was widely known in the first century, ‘No Christian is an alone Christian, and an alone Christian is no Christian.’
This is a message that I suspect just about everyone can appreciate. Of course, no one wants to be alone, we all want companionship and community. But this gets much more difficult when lived out in practice.
The truth is, we aren’t sitting up in the heavenly clouds, breaking bread with the saints. We are down here on earth, in the trenches, working out our salvation in a church full of wounded soldiers. Each of us has baggage, a long history of hurt, different shortcomings, different tastes, and an endless list of pet peeves. It’s easy to talk about community…but before long, your brother hurts your feeling, your sister annoys you, and your father lets you down. Now, the community doesn’t seem so enchanting.
But this is exactly where real Christianity can take root.
A room full of broken people rubbing shoulders is exactly that soil that’s best suited for a spiritual life.
And this is where our Gospel lesson becomes so important.
“You have heard that it was said to those of old, ‘You shall not murder; and whoever murders will be liable to judgment.” Jesus tells his disciples, “But I say to you that everyone who is angry with his brother will be liable to judgment…And whoever says, ‘You fool!’ will be liable to the hell of fire.”
Now this is a hard saying and should conflict each and every one of us. Such emphasis on loving one’s brother! Clearly, there is nothing individualistic here. Christ is linking our relationship with our peers to our relationship with God.
And the passage becomes even more radical: “So when you are offering your gift at the altar, if you remember that your brother or sister has something against you, leave your gift there before the altar and go; first be reconciled to your brother or sister, and then come and offer your gift.”
Can you hear how revolutionary this is?
Shouldn’t we worship God first, and then deal with all those pesky scruples we harbor against one another? But our Lord flips what we would expect. He asks that whenever there is discord in the family we leave the altar first and do whatever we can to heal that discord. When there is peace and love between one another, then God accepts our gift.
St. John Chrysostom sums this up with great wonder: “Observe the mercy of God,” he says, “how He cares for the profit of man above His own honour; He loves peace and good will among the faithful more than offerings.”
Put otherwise, love and forgiveness in the family are far more important, far more critical, then all our religiosity or piety.
We have to forgive each other and love each other.
St. Ephrem of Syria describes the teaching in this way, “…when you cherish no hatred against anyone, when the sun has not gone down upon your wrath, when there is peace and charity in you towards all men, then your prayer is heard, then your offering is pleasing and acceptable to God, your house is blessed, and you are blessed.”
Again and again, you can hear this emphasis on forgiveness and unity, so important in Christianity.
I’m preaching to the choir today, for this is one of the most loving parishes I’ve ever known. Our Lord once said, “By this all men will know that you are my disciples, if you love one another,” and if there’s one phrase that describes our church family, it’s this one.
But as I read the gospel, which our lectionary brings us today, I couldn’t help but dwell on how much weight the scriptures put on this message, and we have to remember it over and over.
“So when you are offering your gift at the altar, if you remember that your brother or sister has something against you, leave your gift there before the altar and go; first be reconciled to your brother or sister, and then come and offer your gift.”
There is a practical side to everything.
Sometimes it would be disruptive to stop the liturgy just so that you can go make sure everything is swell with your spouse or a parishioner. Perhaps your friend, who is angry at you, is on the other side of the country and can’t be reached. Or, we wonder on Sunday mornings, my heart isn’t at peace with someone, how can I be worthy to approach the altar now and receive the Eucharist?
By all costs, do receive the Eucharist. Come to the altar.
In most cases, the only way you can become worthy to eat the Body and drink the Blood of Christ is by simply coming up and receiving it, and in do so receiving the Grace you need to love your brother. This sounds like a contradiction, but it isn’t.
This is the point: Forgiveness and reconciliation is a long time process. It’s part of the journey. But if you’re going to come to the altar, you have to at least desire to be on this journey. God will do the rest.
It takes work, vigilance even, to constantly search in one’s heart any strain of anger or judgment against anyone, and to bring that to God and allow Him to heal you.
This is what it means to be a Christian, to be a community.
When someone you know drives you crazy, don’t run away. You’ll take your problems with you. Whenever things get tough in a community or relationship, or you feel tempted to withdraw, cling all the more to the community. Something in you needs to be healed – and it doesn’t begin with the other person, it starts and ends with you.
I know, without any doubt in my mind, that I will disappoint each and every one of you in this room, at some point or another. I will let each of you down more than once. And the same goes for all of us here as the years go by. But this is exactly how we can grow in Christ. We live together, we rub shoulders together, and we forgive and love one another – and each time we repeat this cycle the window to heaven opens up wider and wider.
There are times when you feel like you’ve had enough, and it might be wise to step back a little. Go in your closet. Pray for whomever it is that’s bothering you. Say the Jesus prayer for him or her again and again, even when it hurts, until you come to see your own sins, and that he or she isn’t so bad after all. But then, as soon as you’re able, come back quickly and make peace.
You know what was so profound about the monks’ birthday parties?
It isn’t nothing for a group of monks to sit together and share memories over cake and tea. Like a parish, every monk has his or her own baggage and annoying habits. Day after day the monks rub shoulders with one another, and believe me, every quirk and idiosyncrasy comes out. It’s an arena for quarrels and disagreements, a bit like a marriage on steroids. But long ago, Christians formed these monastic communities and dedicated their lives to staying together, because they discovered that it is only in that arena that we can work out our salvation. And the same thing goes for a parish.
Iron sharpens iron.
If you want to draw closer to God, dedicate your life to a community, and there learn to forgive everyone and to love everyone.
In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Ghost. Amen.