The Most Deadly Sin
One of the brethren said to his Abba, "Tell us of the monks of the last times. Will they fast and pray as we do?" The Abba answered, "Whoever of them can simply make the sign of the Cross on himself will be greater than any of us."
There is a spiritual illness that is consuming the Church and it stems, not from the outside, but from the inside. This illness, this most deadly sin, is not a grand attack by some outside force intent on destroying the Church; there is no emperor or revolutionary council issuing edicts of persecution for the Christian faith. Yet the end result of this sin is just the same, or perhaps, even more deadly than any open persecution.
At the beginning of the third century A.D. the prominent North African Churchman Tertullian would write: "The Blood of the Martyrs is the seed of the Church."
To be a Christian in the pagan Roman Empire meant taking a risk; it meant living with the threat of betrayal and the loss of all things. Certainly, in the political and religious freedom in which we live, we no longer have the circumstances that produce martyrs for the faith. Having found that the Church was impossible to destroy overtly, Satan has now set about destroying from within that which emperors, heretics, imams and Communism could not. The method of this destruction is simply apathy: the indifference, demonstrated by so many members of the Church. It is visible in the amount of faithful who choose their mattress on Sunday over the Church pew; in parish meetings which struggle to even put together a legal quorum to conduct business; in Sunday morning sports events to which parents enthusiastically take their children; in Church School classes that enroll only a small fraction of the parish students in church events which must, of necessity, be conducted by "same people" because there is no one to relieve the burden.
This feeling of apathy, this indifference to the life of the Church and the spiritual life in general, is not a new phenomenon. We read in the Book of Revelation of the indifference that characterized the Church of the Laodiceans: I know your works, that you are neither cold nor hot. I could wish you were cold or hot. So then, because you are lukewarm, and neither cold nor hot, I will vomit you out of My mouth (Rev. 3:15-16).
Many people recently have noticed a decline in the Church in the national and local level and have put an emphasis on "making converts" to fill the breach caused by the loss of membership. All of such efforts have met with only a very limited success, simply because the host congregations themselves have very often not been converted.
Fr. Alexander Elchaninov, A Russian émigré priest living in France, wrote in the 1930's:
We often mistake for religion a vague mixture of the reminisces of childhood, the sentimental emotions sometimes experienced in Church, colored eggs and cakes at Easter. How shall we succeed in awakening in our soul any sense of the way of the Cross which it must follow towards God?
Faith in Christ and devotion to the mystical Body of Christ - the Church - has always hinged on one and only one article of faith:
I am the Resurrection and the Life. He who believes in Me, though he may die, he shall live. And whoever lives and believes in Me shall never die. Do you believe this?"
St. John 11:25,26
This has always been the question posed by Christ to everyone in the world. Although our lips may answer "yes" to the question, our indifference to the question, much less the answer, betrays us. We are like the Apostles sleeping in the garden of Gethsemane, unaware until it is too late that the Savior is to be betrayed into the hands of men.
We have many excuses for our indifference to the Church and every pastor with any experience can recite them all by rote: we cannot attend Liturgy because we are tired from working, because of sickness or age or someone is a member that we don't like or the priest does not meet our expectations and on and on. Having become indifferent to the Church and to the question of Christ, "Do you believe this?" we enter into a prideful sophistry answering questions that we think Christ might ask and coming up with possible answers: I don't need to go to Church, I am a good person.
God is everywhere and I don't need to worship in a church. All the Church is about is money. Christ never said in the Bible that it was necessary to go to Church.
We reward ourselves in our apathy with a pathetic grace, denying the Cross of Christ and worshipping the false idol of God that we have created. This idol is agreeable and never makes demands. He congratulates our spiritual indolence and lack of repentance and helps up to feel that we are on the "path to salvation." In our delusion we mistakenly embrace him for the Christ of the Church and the Gospels.
But behind this idol that we have created for ourselves is the father of all idols - Satan, the prince of darkness, into whose kingdom we happily approach every Sunday that we choose the "holy mattress" over the "Holy Spirit.". St. Cyprian of Carthage said it perhaps the best: "He cannot have God for his father who does not have the Church for his mother."
The real truth is that it is not a lack of people that is destroying the Church. Jesus warned us that in the last times "the love of many would grow cold." It is not the size of the congregation that is important. It is the will of the congregation to "know Christ and make Him known" as was stated in the theme of a recent Diocesan Sobor. It is the desire of every member of the congregation from the pastor to the smallest child to answer "Yes, Lord I believe that You are the Christ, the Son of God, He Who is coming into the world" (John 11:27) to the question posed by Jesus, Do you believe this?
In the words of the Apostle Paul, "the night is far advanced the day is at hand." The Church in America, the parishes that have nourished so many spiritually, will either live overcome with the love of Christ or they will die overcome with apathy. There is no middle ground; no status quo.
No tree can survive without healthy leaves. As the leaves go, so goes the tree. If the leaves that make up a church are withered and dried out with indifference and and diseased with the spirit of "let someone else do it", that church will perish:
I am the vine, you are the branches. He who abides in Me, and I in him, bears much fruit; for without Me you can do nothing. If anyone does not abide in Me, he is cast out as a branch and is withered; and they gather them and throw them into the fire, and they are burned. John 15:5,6.