• Fr. Peter Kavanaugh

Church is not about Church

“Church is not about Church. The bible is not about the bible. The icons are not about the icons. The liturgy is not about the liturgy. Theology is not about theology. It’s about God.”

Fr. Tom Hopko was one of the well-loved Orthodox teachers in our times. After retiring as Dean of St. Vladimir’s Orthodox Seminary, he travelled all over the country spending as much as his time as he possibly could, trying to convince Orthodox Christians of this one thing: The Church is about God.

That sounds like the most obvious truth in the world, but the funny thing is all of us Christians lose sight of this at times. In fact, this is by far the biggest problem with us Christians. We get so wrapped up in the details that we forget what the details are for.

You can add just about anything to Fr. Tom’s litany. Church isn’t about your favorite songs. It isn’t about your preference of art or decorum or reverence. It isn’t about having a “mystical experience” or getting a dose of peace.

Church isn’t about getting “high on Jesus.” Church is about Jesus. In fact, Church isn’t about you at all. It’s about God.

How often do we go to church to get? When really, we’re supposed to go to church to give?

Or in the same vein, how often do you go to God to get? When really, we’re suppose to go to God to give.

Before ascending into heaven, Jesus Christ tried to prepare his disciples hearts. “The hour is coming,” (John 16:25)… He said to them. “Until now you have not asked for anything in my name. Ask and you will receive, so that your joy may be complete” (16:24).

The focus of prayer is right here: in the name of Jesus.

It’s easy to say “Jesus” with our lips, but in our hearts, we replace his name with all manners of things.

Anytime Church has become a “getting place,” we’ve done just that. Church becomes a means to get comfort, to escape from our problems, to grab a little quiet, or to simply be able to feel pious and upright. This why we grumble at church and why so many churches split apart. We forget that Church is about giving not getting. Church is not about Church; it’s about God.

As you read through the epistles in the New Testament, you start wondering about those first Christian communities. The letters of Peter, Paul, James…just about every page entreats the Christians to stop picking and grumbling.

In his Epistle to the Philippians, St. Paul urges, “Do everything without complaining or arguing” (Ph. 2:14).

St. James is even bolder, “Brothers…Be patient...Do not grumble against one another…so that you may not be judged…behold, the Judge is standing at the door” (James 5:8-9).

Paul places divisiveness and grumbling along with adultery and murder. He describes the Holy Spirit as the spirit that unites, and the devil as the spirit who divides. The minute we start to grumble we’ve placed ourselves against God and are working against His Spirit in the Church. But instead of grumbling, Paul urges us to "Encourage one another and build each other up" (I Th. 5:11).

In the epistle that we read today, St. James tells us, “If any think they are religious, and do not bridle their tongues (in other words, if anyone complains or grumbles or talks poorly about another brother or sister in Christ, they…) deceive their hearts, their religion is worthless. Religion that is pure and undefiled before God…is this: to care for orphans and widows in their distress, and to keep oneself unstained by the world (In other words, true religion comes down to one thing: loving God and loving your neighbor)” (Js. 1:26-27). The minute the Church loses this focus, then it’s lost the whole point of its mission. The bus has not only gotten on a wrong road, it has gotten stuck in rut.

But why would this happen? Why did those first Christian communities who were freed from a culture of slavery, infanticide, and debauchery and given eternal life on silver platter caught up in grumbling, so much so that half of the New Testament addresses it? And why must ask ourselves. Why do we Christians today fall in the same trap. We’ve been swept up from a culture of nihilism, suicide, and death. People are spiritually dying, starving for love, yearning for truth and meaning, and we Christians get distracted by our taste of music or our favorite way of spreading mayonnaise. This is especially serious for us Orthodox Christians. To much is given much is required. In a time when mainstream denominations have jettisoned all semblance of Christian doctrine, liturgy, morality, you name it, the Orthodox Church stands as a testimony to Christ’s promise, “the gates of hell shall not prevail.” Some 60 million Orthodox Christians were martyred by the Soviet Union to preserve the Orthodox faith, today our brethren in Egypt and Syria are bombed for going to church, yet we in America have been spoon-fed our faith – literally – while the world is searching for God, we are fed God on a spoon from a chalice, as we eat the body and drink the blood of our Lord Jesus Christ. With all this, how is it possible that we could grumble and complain and divide?

Fr. Tom believed it’s because we forget that Church isn’t about Church. Church isn’t about feeling comfortable. Church isn’t about getting something you want. Church is about God.

Some 1,700 years ago, St. Basil the Great preached a sermon on the same gospel passage that we read today. “Ask and you will receive.” You can imagine St. Basil wrestling with this as he hashed out his sermon, trying to come to terms with the meaning of prayer. Here’s what he has to say:

“Beloved, there are two methods of prayer. One is to give praise to God from a humble heart; the other, the lower, is the prayer of petition…When you come to pray, leave self behind, leave wife and children. Let the earth go, and rise up to heaven. Leave behind every creature, the visible and the invisible, and begin with the praise and glory of Him Who has made all things.”

Why do you think he calls ‘prayers of petition’ the lower kind of prayer?

We’re supposed to petition God: to ask God to heal a friend in the hospital, to help our son who needs a job, to keep our parents safe on the road, or to protect our country. This is all good, but it’s the tip of the iceberg.

“When you…pray, leave self behind, leave wife and children. Let the earth go…” What do you make of that?

St. Basil is getting at something.

All too often, we forget that prayer has much less to do with getting as it does with giving. It’s a good thing to pray to God for each of our concerns and needs down here. But we can’t get stuck on them. First and foremost, prayer is about offering up your self to God in humility and adoration.

If Church can become that to a person, then he or she will never again feel like grumbling or complaining. When we come to get, we’re always going to be disappointed. But when we start coming to give, then nothing can get in our way.

When we pray in Jesus’ name, and not in My-name, then we will find everything we need at church and our joy will be full.

What’s going on at mass on Sunday morning?

All these icons, candles, vestments, music, incense and favorite songs…that’s just the outer rim… You know, we can feel so entitled to a church building that we forget that the church doesn’t belong to any of us. You and I and every one in this room are merely guests in the house of our master. The singing of the congregation and the rituals of the servers are a tiny blurb of what’s going on here. We’re in the presence of God. You want to know what mass is about, read Revelation.

“All the angels stood around the throne and around the elders... And they fell facedown before the throne and worshiped God (Rev. 7:11)…Day and night they never stop saying: ‘Holy, Holy, Holy, is the Lord God Almighty, who was and is and is to come!’” (4:8). The saints are offering up pots of incense. The angels are singing. Christ Himself is standing at this altar breaking His body, on behalf of us all, and pouring out His soul to His Father.

When we come to church to get a little sense of quiet, a measurement of comfort, a refresher before we go back to our real work in the world…then we’ve missed the whole point.

Church isn’t about getting. Church is about giving.

Prayer isn’t about taking from God. Prayer is about falling down on our faces in grateful worship and humble adoration.

I want to end with a little story from the life of Dante. Long ago in Italy, the famous author, Dante, was worshipping God at mass. He was so wrapped in meditation, that when the right time came to kneel, he missed his cue and just kept on standing. This annoyed some people around him and they ran up to the bishop to complain. That man, they said, wasn’t following the decorum and ought to be punished. Well, here’s what Dante had to say in reply, “If those who accuse me had had their eyes and minds on God, as I had, they too would have failed to notice events around them, and they most certainly would not have noticed what I was doing.”

The crowd had forgotten what Church was all about.

We have one simple job to do at church: to love God with all your heart, soul and mind, and to love the person in the pew next to you, the servers and the priest at the altar, and every guest that walks through the door.

“Church is not about Church. The bible is not about the bible. The icons are not about the icons. The liturgy is not about the liturgy. Theology is not about theology. It’s about God.”

In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Ghost. Amen.

Saint Benedict Orthodox Church

3808 Seymour Road

Wichita Falls, TX, 76309