Walk into almost any Orthodox Church and once you get passed the incense, the solemn chant and the ancient iconography, one of the things that usually strikes most visitors is the singular look of the congregation--usually all white and of the same ethnic background. It wasn't always like this nor do I believe should it stay this way.
The Gospel Will Be Preached
Jesus said "this gospel of the kingdom shall be preached in the whole world as a testimony to all the nations" (Matthew 24:14 NASB). Jesus promised us that His gospel would be preached to all the different people groups of the world. It is an absolute promise. The kingdom of God will always move forward and that kingdom includes people from every nation united together as one. This is the way Christ intended for His body to manifest the glory of God. And so, with or without us, the kingdom that Jesus established will move toward the vision that John the apostle had on the island of Patmos, where one day those who respond with love, from every tribe and language and people and nation, shall gather around the Lamb to sing a new song (Revelation 7:9). Knowing this, we need to ask ourselves then if we're ready to once again participate in this glorious plan.
And a glorious plan it is. You see, the purpose of our salvation is for us to no longer be strangers but fellow citizens of God's household: a new people, with no ethnic enmity, reconciled and united in truth with God. The irrevocable truth of the gospel is that all Christians are equal, but more importantly the church views us as being joined together as a single humanity of love. This is the true church of God because this is the true kingdom of God. God accepts all who repent and believe without distinction or discrimination. The church always knew this, but somewhere along our history it has been forgotten.
Change is Good
Hesitation, entrenched ways of doing things, old hatreds and our fear of change have prevented the church from realizing the unity that lies at the heart of Christ's message. As a church we have failed miserably to display Christ's practice of ethnic equality and to follow the early church's lead in actualizing this Biblical imperative. With the changing demographics of our world, we need to change now more than ever before; that is, are we going to be obedient to God's will or are we going to stay in our inertia? Are we going to obey God and participate in His purpose or will we shrivel up in our small, self-serving island, irrelevant to God's plan and to the world?
Sure, change is never easy, but aren't we called to change the world? The church was never meant to be self-absorbed and satisfied with its own parochial affairs. We are a Spirit-filled church that ought to live in obedient and loving fellowship, in living worship and in what Mother Maria Skobtsova called the Christification of the world. We need to regain the anxious urgency of the early church to continuously reach out to the world, make the good news of Christ's love alive again and join together as fellow heirs of God's kingdom.
It is an indictment against all of us as individual Christians and as a body in Christ, that in a land as rich as ours we can only support a handful of missionaries both locally and abroad. Where are the Christians among us who have fanned the flame of Christ in our hearts and are ready to make it our ambition to preach the gospel in places where Christ has not already been named (Romans 15:20)? Where are the Christians among us who are ready to fight for justice, child sexual slavery, hunger, unwed mothers, and family disintegration in our western culture? Christ is suffering at our doorsteps. We see the evil and suffering in the distant faces of those on television but I'm afraid that maybe we have become too blinded by religious elitism to reach out to Him.
A Fresh Beginning
Christ has brought into being a new world of unity and peace. Yet if we look as the church today we see a very different reality. The new barriers that we've erected in place of the ones Christ demolished are an offence not only to Christ but also to the world that looks at us. Our preoccupation with our own culture hinders this gospel and those who wish to belong to Christ. Our identity must come from Christ not our ethnicity. We cannot preach the gospel of the kingdom where we all reign as fellow heirs in a new unified family under God while at the same time perpetuating the very same racial and ethnic barriers Christ abolished with his death and resurrection. It is time our theology was reflected in our actions. Otherwise the words of Martin Luther King Jr. in his Letter from Birmingham Jail will too soon become our reality:
"There was a time when the church was very powerful -- in the time when the early Christians rejoiced at being deemed worthy to suffer for what they believed. In those days the church was not merely a thermometer that recorded the ideas and principles of popular opinion; it was a thermostat that transformed the mores of society ... . But the judgment of God is upon the church [today] as never before. If today's church does not recapture the sacrificial spirit of the early church, it will lose its authenticity, forfeit the loyalty of millions, and be dismissed as an irrelevant social club with no meaning for the [21st century]."
Jesus built his church by putting an end to ethnic self-centeredness. It is our common faith in Christ Jesus that trumps any sense of ethnicity in the church and which is the true mark of the kingdom. Sure the teachings of Christ are both dangerous and upsetting, but they are also amazing and miraculous. I believe the time is right for all of us to ache for and work towards the day when our churches will manifest the glory of God where there is neither Russian nor Greek, black nor white, no male and female, because we are all one in the Lord Christ Jesus and all are made to drink of one Spirit. Only when we live like this will the world stop and take notice and see the glory of the body of Christ through us and in us. Only when we have this new Pentecost that again demonstrates the multinational nature of the kingdom of God will there be an explosion of the gospel around the world.
John Kapsalis has an M.T.S from Holy Cross Greek Orthodox School of Theology.