If a pollster came up to you today and asked the question, "Why do you go to church?" what answer would you give? Some answers might be, "I want to see my friends; My parents built this place; I'll feel guilty if I don't go; It's where the Greeks gather together; My kids need to go to Sunday School; I like to go to church; I feel uplifted by the worship and inspired by the message; It's the one constant in my crazy, ever-changing world; It helps me grow in my relationship with God." Another answer can be found in today's gospel reading for the commemoration of the Holy Apostle and Evangelist Matthew 9:9-13. We hear Jesus say to the tax-collector Matthew, "Follow me!" (v.9). Christ is saying that to each and every one of us, "Follow me!" And to follow Jesus, the path leads through the doors of the church and a Divine Liturgy later, right back out those same doors.
However, following Christ is not just about going in and out of a building at a certain time. It's about coming out of one lifestyle and entering another. Jesus says later in verse 13, "I have come to call, not the righteous, but sinners." In the Luke passage it adds, "to repentance." Jesus is calling sinners to repentance. I come to church because I'm a sinner and Christ has called me to repentance-to a radical change in lifestyle towards purity and holiness. I come to church because I cannot change without His help, without your help. Isn't that what we pray in the First Prayer before Holy Communion? "I believe Lord and I confess that You are the Christ, the Son of the living God, Who came into the world to save sinners, of whom I am the first."
Now some people refuse to go to church because they see it as a house full of liars, hypocrites, gossipers, slanderers, adulterers, snobs and they are right. It is! What they do no see is Jesus sitting at the Eucharistic dinner with all these sinners. What they also do not see is their own sinfulness behind the smoke screen of self-righteousness. I'm not a liar, I'm not a hypocrite, I'm not a slanderer, I'm not a gossiper and so on. Well if you're not any of those, what are you because you are some kind of sinner?
Answering the question, "Why do I go to church?" implies some understanding of the purpose of the Church. How would we answer this question, "What is the Church here for?" The answer: to keep, practice and proclaim the Orthodox Christian Faith pure and undefiled; to proclaim the Gospel; to sanctify and educate the faithful; to enhance their spiritual life and add to their numbers. Today's epistle commemorating St. Matthew (Rom.10:11-11:2) summarizes this quite well. "How are they to call on One in whom they have not believed? And how are they to believe in One of whom they have never heard? And how are they to hear without someone to proclaim Him? And how are they to proclaim Him unless they are sent?" (v.14-15). Thus, the Church prepares and sends people to proclaim Christ, so others can hear and believe. This is accomplished through our programs, staff, ministries and volunteers.
Some say, I don't need the Church to be a good person. I can watch Oprah or Dr. Phil. I can read some books about it or view a DVD lecture. However, it seems the Church is becoming the only place to hear the truth about how God wants us, commands us, to live our lives. Recent research says that infidelity between men and women has increased over the last fifteen years. So has STDs among teenagers. With our recent financial crisis, we see that greed is not on the decrease either. To our credit, many people in society see these trends as problematic. Unfortunately, the solutions we seek are purely humanistic or mechanistic in origin. Subsequently, they lead to moral relativism that does not reflect the true nature of our humanity and how we relate to one another. That's why things keep breaking down. The assault on the traditional definition of marriage and the sanctity of life in the womb are just two examples.
Let's regularly ask ourselves, "Why do I go to Church? What is the purpose of the Church? Am I following Christ as a repentant sinner or do I constantly question and second-guess Him as one who is righteous?" Let us sit down together at the Lord's Supper to hear the proclamation of those who have been sent that we may believe and follow Christ, wherever He leads us.
Fr. Richard Demetrius Andrews is the pastor of St. George Greek Orthodox Church in St. Paul, Minnesota. Fr. Andrews is the past president of Minnesota Eastern Orthodox Christian Clergy Association (MEOCCA), and a volunteer chaplain with the St. Paul Police Department.