Ministering to the Faithful and Unfaithful Alike
by Chris Andreas
The following sermon has been provided by the Department of Stewardship Ministries of the Greek Orthodox Archdiocese of America
". . .Inasmuch as you have done it unto one of the least of these my brethren, you have done it unto me." (Matt 25:40)
Matt. 25:40 indicates the complete and perfect lifestyle of a Christian. Throughout Holy Scriptures, we find our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ declaring the importance of giving to all who are in need. It is not enough to show love only toward those who love us but to all of the Father’s children. Accordingly, we are exhorted to do what we can in ministering to others. We are also reminded that all that we have are gifts from Him. Our times, talents and treasures, literally our very lives were all given to us by our Creator.
Before His crucifixion, Jesus said that we will always have the poor among us. Talk about a prophecy come true! Here we are in America approaching the 21st century, and what do we see: poverty, hunger, a growing welfare system, the homeless in our streets, and crime waves that have literally blown statistics from previous generations into oblivion. Despite all of the programs at the national, state and local levels to alleviate these problems, we see that the results have fallen far short of their desired goals. Nothing seems to have worked despite all of the billions that have been thrown into major programs. The social and moral crisis in this great nation of ours has continued to grow steadily worse.
Part of the problem may very well be that America’s church groups have permitted the federal, state and local governments to acquire too much of the burden at the purely economic and secular levels what we as churches should have been doing at the spiritual and social levels. Are we conveniently allowing government to usurp our own responsibilities in ministering to others? I offer this as a challenge to all of us including my own Orthodox brethren.
History reveals that the Church, the Orthodox Church, has had a very illustrious, successful history in the area of ministries. You might recall that in the Early Church, all things were held in common, and that the first deacons were appointed to assist the poor (see opening chapters of the Acts of the Apostles). At the time of Constantine the Great, the Church was finally "legalized" within the Roman Empire. It literally became the Empire’s principal, dominant faith. Constantine understood that the foremost administrators who could be relied upon not only to get the job done, but also in terms of personal integrity and sincerity were the Christians. The Empire began to be built around their beliefs.
History also shows that almost all the ministries of, first the Roman, then the Byzantine Empire, were run not only by Christians in general but by the Church in particular. The poor, the elderly and even the incarcerated, that they might be saved in the end, were ministered to by the Church. Institutions such as the schools, hospitals, orphanages, libraries and many others were administered by the Church, and not merely by the state. The ministries were, of course, highly successful. The poor, the naked and the hungry were well cared for, and the institutions well run.
In our understanding of service, the church is all inclusive. In reading Matthew 25, vs. 31-46, we see our Lord and Savior focusing in on the Last Judgement. Here, we are admonished to show our love through good works, such as feeding the hungry, giving shelter to the stranger, clothing the naked, visiting the imprisoned, etc.; in short to do all we can for others who are in need. Jesus promises us the reward of eternal life if we do it "even unto the least" of His brethren. Failing to carry out His commandments of love "even unto the least" of His brethren when we have the capabilities of doing so, we can only look to everlasting punishment. These are the promises, (and warning) of God Himself.
Yet today, there does seem to be a growing antagonism with respect to the poor and the imprisoned. We have heard so much of the welfare state and the problems of crime that we have become an angry nation when we speak of these issues. And we have begun to forget that, whatever the reasons behind these problems, these are indeed human beings we are talking about. Every child or young adult who breaks a law is most likely to be one who has either no person or the wrong person to guide his or her everyday life. Every adult as well as child that is homeless or who goes to bed hungry is the responsibility of the Church. It is irrelevant as to whose fault it is that he or she is in this situation. True, we don't want to be assaulted for our money, but nonetheless the Church, which is made up of people like all of us, has this grave responsibility to administer to people who are in need. This is the ministry of love that our Lord and Savior so often spoke about. And it is through the ministry of good works that our love is manifested.
I do not profess a social gospel here. Yet, at the same time, can the Gospel of Jesus Christ be effectively preached without the good works of love? I can only conclude that the answer is "no", it cannot.
We read in the Epistle of James, Chapter 2, ". . .show me your faith without your works, and I will show you my faith by my works" and that, ". . .faith without works is dead." He also says, ". . .that by works a man is justified, and not by faith only." We see here that we must always keep our attention focused upon the good works that our Lord Jesus Christ intended for us to do even unto the least of His brothers. This is meant not only for the spiritual and physical well being of others but for ourselves as well. For with the good works, we preach a more sincere gospel, one that is, through our example, our orthopraxia, more acceptable to others. We read in Matt. 5:16, "Let your light so shine before men, that they may see your good works and glorify your Father in heaven." Our good works have much to do in preaching an effective gospel thus bringing people closer to the Holy Trinity. Let us also remain wary of Paul’s admonition in his Epistle to Titus in 3:8, ". . .that those who believe in God should be careful to maintain good works. These things are good and profitable to men." And as for ourselves, God makes us complete in every good work we do, for we do it by His will which is within us through Jesus Christ, and it is pleasing in His sight (Heb. 13:21).