Sometimes I hear people tell me that they believe in God and like the Church but don’t like the people. Usually this is because there was some difficult or negative experience that they may have endured from another person which left them disenchanted, upset and “turned off” from the Church. I think it’s fair to say that many of us have had something like this happen. So what is the relationship between the “Church” and the people who are in it?
The distinction between the Church and people can be thought of like this: God is the artist. The people are the canvas. The Church is the painting. In order for the painting to exist, there has to be a canvas. When God paints on the canvas, what he paints is beautiful and perfect. But then, over time, the canvas gets dirty and wrinkled. The paint gets cracked and chipped. The painting is still there, but it needs to be restored once in a while so that it’s beauty will be visible to all.
It is the same way with the Church. The Church is not a building and it is not something created by people. The Church is Christ Himself. Those who have been baptized into Christ, have put on Christ, forever. This is what it means to be a Christian. It means that we are “in Christ” and he is in us. When Christ ascended to heaven after his resurrection from the dead, he established the Church on earth by making the Church a reality for the world through his followers. In other words, we don’t just go to church but we must “be” the Church.
Since the Church is the Body of Christ, we are the members of that body and we must live and work as that body. Christ came to save the world and this is the work of the Church. We are to be his hands, his eyes, his heart, his mind, his presence, his love, his compassion, his forgiveness here on earth so that everyone can know and experience the love of God the Father and be reconciled with him and through Christ have eternal life in the Kingdom of Heaven. But what happens is that not everyone who becomes a part of the Church understands what is expected of him or her. Not everyone lives up to the identity that is given to them at baptism. Not everyone allows Christ to live and work through them but instead allows the devil to live and work through them. This is the great tragedy. Indeed, it is worse for someone to have been baptized Greek Orthodox and to not have tried their best to live a holy, Christian life than for someone who never knew or heard about Jesus Christ.
Just as we are responsible and accountable to live out our identity as law-abiding American citizens, even more so are we responsible and accountable for our identity as Christian; an identity we received through our baptism. Otherwise, we remain as people with a kind of amnesia. Not knowing who we are and what the Church is all about. Our hearts will become closed and cold and lacking in love and humility. We will point out the sins of others because of our fear of our own sins being known. We become slaves to fear and pride and refuse to be humble and repent so that God could forgive us our sins and so that he could use us in the Church as an instrument of love, peace, kindness and mercy.
Let us instead do our best to be the Church. Let us remember Christ so that Christ will remember us. We should desire nothing more than to be close to Christ. And the more we get closer to him, the more we are filled with his love. And through this relationship, this encounter and communion with Christ, we are sanctified. And this love, this perfect, beautiful love and light of Christ can radiate to everyone else around us.
The mercy, the compassion, the patience, the kindness, the power of Christ can dwell in us, his Church, and through us to others, like a bright light in a dark room. As Orthodox Christians we must be honest and ask ourselves how am I living up to my identity? How am I being the Church? And, it what ways am I not being the Church?