"International Flags for a Universal Gospel"
"INTERNATIONAL FLAGS FOR A UNIVERSAL GOSPEL"
Fr. Luke A. Veronis
August 21, 2011
Did any of you notice anything new when you drove up into our Church parking lot this morning? Some may have taken note of our new flag poles, and the flags flying at our Church entrance. We have our traditional American and Greek flags flying, as we always have, together with an Albanian flag, a Romanian flag, and a Russian flag. And may add other flags as well.
And together with our new flags, we have a large 10 foot welcoming banner which says “Is Something Missing from Your Life? Come and Find Your Spiritual Home in the Orthodox Church!”
Our Parish Council and Church Leaders hope that our new banner and the various flags will get across a welcoming message to the larger community that our Church, our Orthodox Church, is open to all people. Anyone who so desires, here in Webster or in the surrounding area of Central Massachusetts and northeastern Connecticut, may find a spiritual home and loving family here – regardless of one’s background, history or ethnicity.
As the Apostle Paul wrote to his disciple Timothy, “God our Savior desires that everyone be saved and come to the knowledge of the truth.” (1 Tim 2:3) St. Peter came to realize, “I truly understand that God shows no partiality, but in every nation anyone who fears Him and does what is right is acceptable to Him.” (Acts 10:35) The Evangelist John put it this way, “For God so loved the world that He gave His only Son, so that everyone who believes in him may not perish but have eternal life. For God did not send the Son into the world to condemn the world, but in order that the world might be saved through Him.” (Jn 3:16-17)
Even though our Lord Jesus was Jewish, and his first followers were Hebrew, He clearly commanded them to share His Good News with all people everywhere. The salvation of our Lord should never be limited to any particular group, and although some Jewish Christians in the first century didn’t want the Church to expand outside of its Semitic context, still the Holy Spirit led St. Paul and others to proclaim the Gospel to Jews and non-Jews alike, embracing all people fully into the Body of Christ, this growing, new Christian family.
This is why St. Paul would write, “For in Christ Jesus you are ALL children of God through faith. As many of you as were baptized into Christ have clothed yourselves with Christ. 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.” (Galatians 3:26-29)
This all embracing attitude set the tone for the early Church. Yet every generation has to be careful of its own egocentric temptations to limit the Good News of Jesus Christ to only its own group, to only “our own people” – whether we understand “our own” in ethnic, social, economic or some other limiting terms. The Gospel is Good News for all people!
Although this universal spirit seems so obvious in the teachings and life of Christ Jesus, it’s fascinating to see how Christians throughout the ages have tried to limit the Church’s universal nature. Too easily, we create a false, distorted God who hates the same people we hate, or excludes and rejects the very people we feel uncomfortable with. Our true, all loving God stands far above any limitations we may set on others.
The apostolic Jewish Christian community initially hesitated to allow non-Jews to enter their fold. And similar hesitations happened in future years, even though the Gospel quickly spread into the Greco-Roman world, embracing Greek and Latin as languages in which to proclaim the Good News and in which to worship God. In the following centuries, the Christian Church spread among the Coptic speaking Egyptians, among the Armenians and into Ethiopia, each using their own language in which to worship God. The Church continued its spread into northern Europe, not only embracing the Celtic and Gothic languages, but even helping to create their literary languages, as well as going into the Far East and spreading through Persia and going as far as India itself. The Church evangelized the Slavic peoples, once again creating an alphabet, and continued her march literally into every country throughout the world. Today more than 33% of the world, or two billion people, call themselves followers of Jesus Christ!
A surprising, yet fascinating fact that many aren’t aware of is the reality that today most Christians are no longer white and of European descent? The majority of contemporary Christians live in the global south and are people of color! This may shock some, and yet, it reflects the beautiful, universal nature of our Church.
And one can even find our Orthodox Church in such places as Tanzania and Kenya, in Indonesia and Korea, in Mexico and Guatamala, and so many other places. Orthodox Christians are worshipping God through the Divine Liturgy in Swahili, Lua, Indonesian, Mandarin, Korean, Spanish and numerous other languages! The Holy Spirit sanctified all languages on the great feast of Pentecost, and revealed how the Church, our Orthodox Church is one, united in a common faith while not uniform in its language or cultural expression of faith.
Thus, our purpose of placing numerous flags at the entrance of our Church isn’t to downplay the roots of our Greek Orthodox heritage. This Church in Webster was founded and supported by immigrants who came from Greece, and also Albania, and we always want to honor and remember our forebearers. While remembering and honoring our past, though, we also need to look forward to our future. And throughout this journey of faith, we need to remain loyal to the universal spirit of the Gospel.
The international flags and our welcoming banner are there to let everyone passing by our Church understand that our community is for all people – all are welcome, and we embrace and invite everyone to visit our spiritual home and even consider joining our Church Family.
The flags represent the variety of people we welcome. Ultimately, though, we should remember that no national flag truly represents who we are as followers of Jesus Christ. Our Lord stands above all nations, and we should never identify our faith too closely with any one nationality. As St. Paul clearly stated, we are “no longer Jew nor Greek… for our citizenship is in heaven, and it is from there that we are expecting a Savior, the Lord Jesus Christ.” (Phil 3:20)