Fulfilling our Mission as a Parish

By Fr. Panayiotis Papageorgiou, Ph.D.

In the “Epistle to Diognetus,” written at the beginning of the third century by an unknown Christian author, we learn of something special with regard to the Christians: The author explains, “We (Christians) are in this world, but we are not of this world…We inhabit specific lands, but we are citizens of another country–the Kingdom of God”. We are merely “sojourners” (paroikoi) in this world–just passing through. 

A lot of historical evidence shows that Christians of the early centuries saw themselves as “sojourners” (paroikoi). They called their communities “paroikies” or “parishes” (a term we still use today), homes away from home. They lived as citizens of the countries they dwelled in, but yearned for the Kingdom of God, their ultimate and true homeland. This understanding provided tremendous freedom and incentive for the early Christians to do what God called them to do and fulfill the primary mission of the Church. They were willing to share all   of their goods with those around them so that no one would be hungry or naked. They were willing to risk their lives to help those stricken by diseases, especially during the great plagues–here is where the Holy Unmercenaries appear, the Christian healers who accepted no money for their services. Early Christians were willing to stand up for the teachings of Christ (as they were handed down to them) and even give their lives as martyrs (witnesses) of the love they had for God and for the faith they had inherited.

It is imperative for us (contemporary Christians) that we return to that model of Christian living and understanding, if we want to have an effect on modern society. No other model can serve us better than this early Christian one. If we were to get tangled up in modern politics in order to promote our faith, we would get lost in the whirlwinds of the contemporary political system, where morality and Christian values have either been compromised or utterly exploited for political gain. If we were even to start our own political party, we would risk becoming tangled up in the political maneuverings which corrupt even the most moral of characters. The only choice we have is to trust in God’s providence for us as we shape ourselves and our children in the image and likeness of God and turn our focus to the Kingdom of Heaven, rather than the kingdoms of the earth.

If the Orthodox Church in America is to succeed in its primary mission to bring the Gospel of Salvation and Sanctification to the world, we must return to the prime theological teachings of the divinity of Christ and the salvation offered through Him. We need to establish our own schools where we will cultivate in our children the Orthodox Christian principles of life as the early Christians did. We cannot shape souls effectively unless we undertake a serious effort of immersion of our people from a young age in the Faith and Orthodox way of life. A serious Christian education is the way to do that. An Orthodox Christian education in particular is the only way to counter the intellectual onslaught of the secular society upon the minds of our people.

For years, as immigrants, we sought to establish ourselves as a respectable minority in America. We have succeeded and surpassed most other minorities. We now stand at a crossroads: we either continue to seek further political and societal acceptance through the use of the wealth which God has given us, or we turn our focus to the greatest treasure we have, the FAITH, and find ways to effectively share it with those around us.

We can use our wealth either to further impress the secular world with our successes so that we can continue to gain their respect and recognition, or we can seek ways to present the treasure of ancient Christianity which has been handed down to us by creating opportunities for theological education for those around us, especially those who are looking for authentic Christian teaching. Do we become anchored citizens of this world through our secular successes, or do we cultivate our citizenship in heaven through a witness of authentic Christian life?

This is a critical moment in the life of our Parish. We have established ourselves by the grace of God as a respectable “faith group” in this corner of the earth. People are now ready to listen to us if we do have a serious message to offer. But we need to first understand what this message really is and make it an integral part of our own lives. As a group of people who claim to be followers of Christ, we need to begin living according to His teaching. People around us have to recognize us from our love for each other and our good works. We need to make a mark in the local community as both philanthropists as well as lovers of God.

We also need to dig into our treasure chest of theological learning and bring out what is beautiful for the “seekers of authentic Christianity”. There are many people in America today who are looking for what we have. There are thousands of people wandering around looking for authentic Christian theology and meaningful worship. They are looking for us, but we are hiding behind beautiful, fancy buildings, ethnic and cultural barriers. It is time to open the doors and receive these “Seekers of Truth”. This is the MISSION of the parish, given to us by God; we need to become witnesses of this amazing Faith we have inherited through both a practical witness as well as a theological one.

In Christ’s Love,

Fr. Panayiotis