Saturday, October 27, 2007

Challenging cowardice within Christianity

Tom Kovach

An ancient liturgical practice reveals the truth of Christian resistance

October 26, 2007
NOTE: Unless specified otherwise, all Bible references are from the New King James Version of the Holy Bible (published by Thomas Nelson Publishers, Nashville, TN).
Jesus warned His followers, "It is impossible that no offenses should come, but woe to him through whom they do come!" (Luke 17:1; see also Matthew 18:7) Instead of the word "offenses," some translations use the word "troubles." Clearly, offenses and troubles have come upon Christianity from the beginning. But, the assaults upon Christianity in modern times are more widely pervasive than at any time since the death of the Apostle John. Modern technology literally makes it possible to have our minds bombarded "24-7" with worldliness. The Apostle Paul wrote that we should "pray without ceasing" (1st Thessalonians 5:17), which is the antidote to the electronic "white noise" of this world.

Whether by means of violent persecution, by mockery and blasphemy, by distortions of truth, or by acquiescence of faith from within, the evidence shows that Christianity is currently under attack. And, unfortunately, the evidence also shows that far too many Christians are willing — even eager — to retreat before the fight even starts. Is that the proper Christian response? Is that what Jesus meant when He told us to turn the other cheek? (Matthew 5:39; Luke 6:29 says "offer") Or, is something missing from the modern approach?

Let us look to the practices of the ancient Church.

Most Americans, if they look at Christian history at all, mainly think of only one thing: the Protestant Reformation. But, five centuries before the split by Martin Luther from the Roman Catholic hierarchy, there was another split. In the year 1049, an event called the Great Schism (Greek for "split," or "tearing apart") separated the Church of Rome from the combination of jurisdictions now known as the Eastern Orthodox Churches. (Or, more succinctly, the Orthodox Church — which includes national and cultural jurisdictions such as Greek, Russian, American, etc.) The seat of church hierarchy in the East was in Constantinople. And, despite nearly a thousand years of Muslim domination (Constantinople is now known as Istanbul, Turkey), the primary bishop of the Orthodox Church remains the Patriarch of Constantinople.

Bear with me for a few more paragraphs, and you will see why this retrospective is important. When the Bishop of Rome (known as the Pope) and the Patriarch of Constantinople exchanged letters of excommunication in 1049, something important disappeared from Christian practice and tradition in the West. (Those bishops' successors rescinded those letters, and exchanged "the kiss of peace" in 1964.) That missing something is contained within a larger context called "liturgics": the practice of Christian ritual. In the Western tradition of the Roman Catholic Church, the predominant "liturgy" (the prescribed ritual; from the Greek for "common work" or "work of the people") is known as The Mass. In the Eastern tradition of the Orthodox Churches, it is known as the Divine Liturgy. And, although the predominant Liturgy was written down around the year 425 by Saint John Chrysostom (Greek for "golden mouth," because of his persuasive preaching), historical records indicate that the Divine Liturgy had already been in practice for at least two hundred years before its codification by Chrysostom.

In the modern Western traditions, whether Catholic or Protestant, many of the details of the Divine Liturgy have been relegated to obscurity at best. Some of the practices of the ancient Church are not even preserved, much less the meaning behind those practices. One of those practices is central to this discussion. It is a part of the Divine Liturgy known as the Great Entrance — which is when the priest brings the "elements" from the altar, through the "iconostasis," out into view of the congregation. (The "elements" are the bread and wine, which he will soon mix into Holy Communion.) And, in particular, we will examine the sequence of events just prior to the Great Entrance. It is there — in this practice that the West has overlooked for centuries — that we will see an application for our modern times.


Just prior to the Great Entrance, the text of the Divine Liturgy contains an order for all "catechumens" to depart the interior of the church. A catechumen is a person that is considering, through serious study, a conversion to Christianity. (Unlike the Western concept of "instant" conversions, the ancient practice — which many Orthodox parishes retain to this day — was for someone to study the faith for up to one year before formally accepting the faith through baptism. Such study ensured that no one could claim that they did not know what they were getting into. Jesus taught in Luke 14:28 that we should "sit down first and count the cost.") Thus, prior to the Great Entrance, all catechumens and other visitors were expected to leave. And, once they had left, the doors were closed, locked, and guarded by stalwart men! In the modern West, this practice might be branded as "intolerant." What would prompt the ancient Church to adopt such a practice?

Those who did not believe fully in Jesus Christ were considered unworthy to even look upon the elements of Holy Communion!

Oh, that modern Christians would learn to value our faith that much. (Even in many modern Orthodox parishes, the actual order to depart is "read silently" by the priest. All that is read aloud is, "The doors! The doors! In wisdom, let us be attentive.") In the modern view, Christians — and, sadly, especially our leaders — seem to think that it would somehow be "un-Christian" to hold our faith in high esteem. In contrast, Jesus reserved His strongest condemnations for the compromising religious leaders of His day. Because they should've known better, He referred to them more than once in the 23rd chapter of Matthew as, "Fools and blind!" And, just to make sure that we get the message, Jesus finished His discourse by calling them a "brood of vipers" that were unable to "escape the condemnation of hell." All of the mealy-mouthed preachers of "tolerance" should take a hint.

the modern application

Jesus also warned His followers not to "cast your pearls before swine." (Matthew 7:6) But, many modern priests, pastors, ministers, and lay leaders seem to think that numbers of people are the only important parameter of church success. So, in order to entice larger numbers of people to enter their doors, these modern-day versions of Simon the Sorcerer (see Acts 8:9) water down their message. And, modern people are quite willing to have their ears tickled (see 2nd Timothy 4:3, New American Standard Bible). So, they flock to hear the compromising preachers. The result is our modern trend toward "mega-churches," where people feel good about social networking, but are taught folly — such as the concept that everyone prays to the same God. (We don't. Proclaiming that God and Allah are equal is "The Lie.")

Instead of a wishy-washy, mealy-mouthed, wimpy, cowardly approach, we Christians should do exactly what Jesus commissioned. We should boldly proclaim the Good News, as revealed through God's Word. (see John 7:26, Acts 9:27-29, et al.) Boldly proclaiming means to include the truth that not everyone will enter the Kingdom of God. (see Matthew 7:21 and 19:23-24, Mark 10:23-24, et al.) While that might not do much for the filling of pews (or collection plates!), it will do much in the sight of God. Those claiming that "we all pray to the same God" choose to join the ranks of those to whom Jesus will say, "I never knew you; depart from Me, you who work lawlessness!" (Matthew 7:23) This theme resonates throughout the Bible. It is made especially clear in Revelation 21:8, "But the cowardly, unbelieving, abominable, murderers, sexually immoral, sorcerers, idolaters, and all liars shall have their part in the lake which burns with fire and brimstone, which is the second death." Note that the very first ones listed are the cowardly. (In the New Living Translation, that is stated as "cowards who turn away from me.")

As one that spent a large portion of my life in a combat arm of our American Armed Forces, one of my favorite descriptions of Jesus is that of "commander." That is one that is often overlooked in our wimpy modern approach. I have often described Jesus as "the bravest man that ever lived," because He knew exactly what he was getting into, and He went through with it anyway. In modern parlance, Jesus volunteered for a suicide mission. But, He lives again. (Glory to Him forever!) Those who deny Him, or try to equate Him with the god of another religion, are reminiscent of the saying about a coward's rifle. "It has never been fired, and only dropped once.

"Proclaiming that "we all pray to the same God," or allowing blasphemers to partake of Holy Communion, are examples of nothing short of spiritual and intellectual cowardice! For those who would regurgitate the verse that we should "turn the other cheek," I will remind you of this simple point of logic. In order to turn the other cheek, one needs to remain standing one's ground! One cannot offer a cheek to be slapped if one is running away. Modern preachers remove bravery from Christianity, and turn it into something more worthy of Kaptain Kangaroo than of the King of the Universe.

Instead, we should look at our Christian faith as one that should be protected, respected, and esteemed. The ancient ritual of unbelievers not being allowed to look upon the elements of Holy Communion is a direct descendant of the Jewish tradition of not allowing anyone but the high priest to enter the Most Holy Place within the Tabernacle or the Temple. In the risen Jesus, we have a Great High Priest that intercedes with God the Father on our behalf. (see Hebrews 2:17, 3:1, and 4:14) Unlike mortal priests, Jesus has stood in the very presence of God the Father, yet he lives. And, He returns to us by passing through the Temple veil (represented by the "iconostasis" in an Orthodox Church). He returns to us in the "body and blood" (the bread and wine) of our Holy Communion.

Hopefully, those that have not studied the ways of the ancient Church can now see more clearly how this "little detail" carries with it a great meaning of encouragement. The protection of our Holy Communion is something that should be done by an "elite honor guard" within our churches. This practice is not a matter of us excluding anyone. Those that reject the Kingdom of God have already excluded themselves. The practice exists in this world to make known what is already decided in the next world. It also exists to reinforce and encourage our faith.

We should learn the deeper truths of our Christian faith, so that we can better resist the ways of this world. Amen!

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