Cultural Christians vs. True Followers of Jesus Christ

Cultural Christians. Orthodox Christian because of our family and heritage. “My grandparents were Greek Orthodox, my parents are Greek Orthodox, and I have inherited this faith as my own. I consider myself Greek Orthodox.” How many of us can say that?

Whether we’re Greeks or Albanians or Romanians or Russians who have inherited the Orthodox Christian tradition from our forebearers, or whether we are Americans who identify with the Christian roots and traditions of this country, most of us are a part of the faith community that we have inherited from our forebearers.

Do you ever think about why you’re a Christian and not a Muslim? Or not Hindu? Or Buddhist? Or a Jew? For the vast majority of people, we didn’t choose our religion, it was something we were born into and have maintained.

On one hand, that is a very special blessing! For those of us who were born and raised in the Orthodox Christian tradition, what a treasure we have had since our childhood. We received the most incredible jewel, without doing anything to deserve it. What an unbelievable privilege to know the Good News that our Risen Lord Jesus brings into the world. To be an Orthodox Christian from childhood is an amazing blessing!

And yet, one of the dangers of being born into the faith is that for many people, they take this faith for granted. Since it was something inherited, some don’t even realize the treasure they possess. These people may go to church once in a while, follow certain traditions especially related to Pascha (like making red eggs or cooking lamb), and may even go through the rituals of Orthodox baptisms and ceremonies, and yet, they don’t really understand who Jesus Christ is and what He offers to the world. These are people, like Saint Paul describes to his disciple Timothy, who too often “hold on to the outward forms of religion but deny its power.” (2 Tim 3:5)

Sometimes people like this can be lifelong members of the Church without ever truly understanding what it’s all about. They may even identify their religious faith mainly with their ethnic background, thinking that what is most important about Greek Orthodoxy is our Greek heritage and Greek language. Of course the same could be said for too many Serbians or Russians or Albanians or other ethnic Orthodox.

I recently talked with someone who was a lifelong member of the Church and yet in recent years had fallen away from the Church. When I asked what happened, he responded that he really didn’t believe anymore, and he admitted that in the past, he only came to church because it was a part of his family heritage. Now that society no longer expected people to come to church or to be members of a faith community, he no longer felt the need to come. In fact, he even said, “I used to come because I knew many of the people in the church and I liked the fellowship, but now, I don’t even know most of the people in church anymore, so why should I come?”

When I heard this, I was sad – really sad for the fact that this person grew up in the church yet didn’t really know what the Orthodox Christian faith is all about. He didn’t know or believe in the life-transformative Good News that Jesus Christ proclaims to the world. He didn’t understand how Jesus’ life, death and resurrection changed the history of the world and can change our lives in dramatic ways! He didn’t realize that the ultimate meaning of life is found only in the teachings and life of Jesus Christ! And how the Orthodox Church is a universal family, actually a family that transcends earth and is part of heaven, and that this Church teaches, nourishes, and guides people to discover the Kingdom of God here and now. It is this Church that shows people that path into the eternal love of God.

I want all of us who are so called cradle Orthodox - Orthodox Christian since our baptism as infants - to seriously think about WHY we are Orthodox. Do we truly understand the priceless treasure we have in our Orthodox Christian faith? Do we realize that this is the faith that millions of people throughout history have died for because of its value? Have we discovered for ourselves this “pearl of great price,” a pearl so great that people are willing to give up all they have just to hold on to this precious jewel?

One advantage that people who convert to Orthodox Christianity have over “cradle” Orthodox is that these converts make a conscious decision to choose their faith. They deliberately decide to leave the faith of their ancestors, or maybe to leave no faith at all, and convert to and accept the ancient form of Orthodox Christianity. They had to study, search and reflect on what is truth and on whether they wanted to take this step of faith. And sometimes such conversions have separated them from their families and friends! Yet by studying and searching, they discovered something worthwhile, something priceless, for which they would give up everything, including even their relationships with family.

Remember, the treasure of Orthodox Christianity is not based primarily on one’s ethnic heritage, but it is based on the “One who is, who was and who is to come, the Lord Almighty.” The foundation of our faith is based in Jesus Christ, the Alpha and the Omega, the Beginning and the End of all time and creation. The essence of our faith is God Almighty, who became a human being in the person of Jesus of Nazareth, a Jewish man who lived on earth 2000 years ago. This Jesus, the long-awaited Jewish Messiah, the Christ, the Anointed One of God, came to save the world, all the world, from sin, darkness and death!

To become a true disciple and follower of Jesus Christ, it’s not good enough to simply inherit our faith as Greek Orthodox Christians. It’s not good enough to have grandparents and parents who were Orthodox. Every new generation, and every person, needs to discover on their own an authentic faith in Jesus Christ.

Do you remember the story in the Gospels when Jesus was surrounded by a great crowd of people and His mother and brothers came to see him but couldn’t reach Him because of the crowd. Someone tells Jesus, “Look, your mother and your brothers are standing outside, wanting to speak to you.” To which Christ replies, “Who is my mother, and who are my brothers?” And pointing to his disciples, he said, “Here are my mother and my brothers! For whoever does the will of my Father in heaven is my brother and sister and mother.”

Jesus offers a radical description of His Family - the Family of God, the Church. His family is not related to blood lines and ancestry but to anyone who believes and does the will of His Father.

This is why Saint Paul taught the first Christians to never prioritize their earthly identity over their Christ-centered identity. Paul was a proud Jew and a Roman and yet, he highlighted, “We are citizens of heaven… There is no longer Jew or Greek; there is no longer slave or free; there is no longer male and female, for all of you are one in Christ Jesus. And if you belong to Christ, then you are Abraham’s offspring, heirs according to the promise.”

Today, I want each of us to reflect carefully on our cultural Christianity. If we are cradle Orthodox, be grateful for the undeserved gift that was given to you as an infant, but don’t take it for granted. Discover the treasure that you were gifted and live out that jewel of faith to its fullest. And if you are a convert who has discovered and chosen to follow this path of Orthodox Christianity, be on guard never to lose the wonder and excitement in finding the greatest treasure on earth. Embrace our faith and follow Jesus Christ into eternity!


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