By Father Joseph Sharman, Orthodox Priest in Montrose
“To all who are in Montrose, beloved of God, called to be saints, Grace to you and peace from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ” (Romans 1:7, modified).
In the early Fourth Century, a teenage girl was brought before the Roman governor for the crime of following Jesus, the Christ. The judge demanded her name, and she replied, like so many martyrs before her, “Christian.” He asked for her race and nationality, and she replied, “Christian.” Her identity was entirely defined by being a “little Christ,” which is simply what the word “Christian” means. Her whole focus was her Lord, Jesus Christ.
At the same time, this girl did have a name, a family, a race, and a nationality. Her name was Marina, and she was born in Antioch, in Asia Minor. Her father was a non-Christian priest, and her mother died when she was a baby.
What is your identity?
For us in the United States, the land of the free, when we are asked to describe ourselves, we often answer “Republican” or “Democrat,” “rancher” or “city person,” “progressive” or “conservative,” “pro-choice” or “pro-life,” “ally” or “anti-woke,” “skeptic” or “Evangelical” – any number of apparent dichotomies. All of these, in our country, at least, exist under an umbrella of identity politics that takes on the fervor of American civil religion. Our identities – whether overtly “religious” or “secular” – often come to define us, to box us in, to describe those outside our “dogma.”
Yet boundaries have a place, too, since freedom without principle is no freedom at all. A freedom that claims it must kill others to achieve its ends – or a freedom that destroys you in pursuit of belonging – is actually a form of tyranny. There is no freedom without truth.
It was truth that gave freedom to Marina of Antioch and the countless martyrs like her. They found freedom in an identity that enveloped and transcended this world – a world that sought to kill them. Many times in those early centuries, people witnessing a martyr’s torture and death turned to the executioner and said, “I, too, am a Christian.” They were then executed, sometimes moments later. They found in the witness of the martyrs an identity they wanted more than anything in this world. Their Christian education was seeing a “little Christ” in person.
Who is Jesus Christ? Two thousand years ago, He gave witness that He is the Truth. Truth, for those who follow Jesus the Christ, the Messiah, is not a concept, a formulation, or a set of ideas. It is a Person. All truth, He taught us, is personal. Everything that matters is about Him.
For the Christian, this personal reality is often a both/and, not an either/or. We live in the world and yet are not of the world. We have a nationality and yet are human above all. Our hope – if we are not purely materialists – is in heaven, and yet we live in a cosmos loved by God.
Materialists, those who seek meaning only in physical reality, limit their vision. Matter matters, but why, for example, prioritize skepticism above wonder? Why adhere to a naïve realism when there is so much more beyond what we can see or imagine? My high school math teacher, though describing himself as an atheist, told us that his quest for knowledge opened, for him, a tiny window into the vast realization of the unknown. Humility is, perhaps, the only honest response to the immensity of the universe.
For a Christian, the one constant is Christ, and He makes Himself real to this world in His Body, which Jesus called the Church. The truth is a Person, and we see the truth when we see Christ – in little ways – in those around us who follow Him, whether they know it or not. The Church is the ark of Noah, carrying us through the world’s chaos; it is His Body, all of the parts that constitute it. Any sin in the Church, as one holy man said, is not a sin of the Church but against the Church, the Body of Christ.
For the first thousand years of the Church, all Christians knew what it meant when they, reciting the Nicene Creed, said they believed in “one, holy, catholic, and apostolic Church.” Today, with the bifurcation of identities, many Christians still claim that belief but don’t actually hold it. Instead, they identify as “Anglican” or “Charismatic” or “Lutheran” or “Non-Denominational” or any number of other, recent “denominations,” which is a tragic misnaming of what should be a Christian’s only identity: a member or part of Christ’s Body, the Church.
Where is that Church today? Those of us in the West are strangely unfamiliar with its history. I am an ordained priest of the Orthodox Church in America, which is in communion with the worldwide, visible Church, also called the “Eastern Orthodox” or just “Orthodox” Christian Church. The Orthodox Church and the Roman Catholic church were one Body – one Church – for the first thousand years after Christ, and the Orthodox Church has, to this day, continued to uphold the revelation of Our Lord Jesus Christ given to the apostles and passed on through each faithful Orthodox bishop, priest, deacon, and believer after.
Our Lord Jesus Christ prayed we would be one, a closeness He compared to the unity of the Trinity. The Church He established is a real, physical, visible, Body. It has weathered persecutions, heresies, schisms, and all the other failures of humankind, and it continues to endure them even today. The gates of hell have not prevailed against the Church for these last two thousand years. To remember that requires us to make a choice.
That one, holy, catholic, and apostolic Church has many geographic names now – the Orthodox Church in America, the Greek Orthodox Church, the Serbian Orthodox Church, the Antiochian Orthodox Church, the Ukrainian Orthodox Church, the Russian Orthodox Church, etc. – but it is the Body that Jesus Christ established through the Holy Spirit on the day of Pentecost. (It is a tragedy of history that the Roman See of the one, holy, catholic, and apostolic Church left the other four Sees – in Constantinople, Jerusalem, Antioch, and Alexandria – in 1054 AD, and we pray they come back.) If you are not already Orthodox, will you choose to come home?
It could start with you and your family, but wouldn’t it be better to bring your community? If you are a pastor, would you bring your parish – maybe your entire denomination – back into the Church? What a powerful witness of our identity it would be if Saint Paul could, in fact, write to “To all who are in Montrose, beloved of God, called to be saints,” and we all knew who we were. What if the only distinction between the churches in Montrose were street address?
Such a change requires humility, but Christians follow – incredibly – a humble God.
Many who first walk into an Orthodox temple know they are home, standing in the place they’ve sought all their lives. Others, like me, when I entered the Church, will need to remember why we gather together and what it is we do there. Many of us would need to remember how to read the Bible, which always was and is the book of and for the people of God, the Church. Some of us would need to remember how to pray. All of us would find ourselves caught up in something cosmic, inherently greater than any one person or movement, something much bigger than “me” or my opinions. We would remember that we are a part of the Body, and our identity is found in Him, Jesus Christ, the Head, the author and finisher of our faith.
We would see our place as “little Christs,” where our salvation is found in becoming more and more like Him. In Him, by the grace of God, we would become more and more “one,” as Christ and His Father are one.
My bishop, Archbishop Benjamin of San Francisco and the Diocese of the West, assigned me to establish the Orthodox Church in Montrose. We could begin a new parish here, but we could hope, instead, that the churches in town come back into the Church, uniting together as one. Such true unity is found only in communion with the one, holy, catholic, and apostolic Church Our Lord Jesus Christ established – His Body – not in any external associations or invisible alignments. Would you explore this high calling together?
As Saint Porphyrios (d. 1991) said, “The Church and Christ are one. The body cannot exist without its head. The body of the Church is nourished, sanctified and lives with Christ. … Christ is revealed in that unity between His love and ourselves: the Church. On my own I am not the Church, but together with you” (https://orthochristian.com/66330.html).
For the sake of our witness – our martyrdom – to this world, we must stop dividing, seeking our own agendas, formulating our own creeds and mission statements. We have one mission. Let us race together toward truth, Jesus Christ, where, by suffering together, we grow into one. In humility, let us regain our identity in the one Church, His Body, which transcends this world.
The Rev. Father Joseph Sharman is Priest of the Montrose Mission, Orthodox Church in America, and can be reached at email@example.com or 970-778-7581.