by Jim Connolly
A good man, when he finds a good thing, wants to share it. (Monk Arseniye)
I was raised in a home that did not talk much about God and therefore I had very little exposure to the Christian faith. In 1974, when I was 18 years old and a senior in high school, a number of popular students suddenly became evangelists. I do not know why, or how, this all started, but they distributed a lot of Chick Publications throughout the school, laying everywhere. Chick Publications are cartoon gospel tracts with graphic drawings of depicting what it means to be saved.
There were dozens different stories about people who thought they were good enough to go to heaven, but were always surprised at the end of their life. All were scary, with the same message – Receive Jesus, or else! I probably read the ‘salvation’ prayer at the end of each tract asking me to admit I was a sinner, repent, believe, and invite Jesus into my heart. I was raised in a strict home, with lots of discipline and punishment, so the idea of hell for the disobedient made sense to me but my life did not change much. However, I was more conscience of a God and the punishment for sin so I started to read the bible.
The summer after this experience I worked at a YMCA camp in Pennsylvania. I remember one occasion sitting around a camp fire smoking marijuana with some other guys that worked there and saying to them,
“I am probably going to hell for this.”
Even though I said this, I don’t think I believed it. At least, the fear of going to hell was not enough to change my life or actions.
In 1974 I entered University, found a few Christian friends, and attended Christian meetings sponsored by Campus Crusade and the Navigators. Campus Crusade (now called CRU) had a tract called the The Four Spiritual Laws by Bill Bright published in 1952.
The Four Spiritual Laws is illustrated by a diagram of a great chasm created by sin against God. As CRU states in their publications,
“Our position in Christ is our legal standing with God.”
The message is God is so holy, he can’t look upon man except through Jesus. Sin is the ultimate offense against God through man’s rebellion and disobedience and correcting this separation requires the ultimate sacrifice. Only Jesus can pay the ultimate price. Jesus took God’s wrath, meant for us, upon Himself. For that reason, we should love Him, thank Him, and worship Him.
There were other Christians living in my dormitory more committed to being a Christian than I was. I walked past their bible studies many times on my way to do something else. I thought I should attend, felt guilty, but would rather go do something more fun. This was the way it went for 4 years of college. It would be hard to tell that I was a Christian because while I professed to be one, my life and actions did not reflect a Christian life.
After college, I entered the work field and my life did not include church or Christian friends. My perception of God at this point had only been what I had understood from Chick Publications and The Four Spiritual Laws. For the next four years I partied, caroused, and did not think God was important, or that He made any difference in my life.
Even though I ignored thoughts about God’s existence, I identified myself as Christian and desired to find a Christian woman to marry. That happened in 1982 when I met my wife, Amy. We agreed that raising our children in a Christian home was important and we always looked for a church wherever we lived. At some point we were both baptized but I don’t recall the date. The denomination we were attending viewed baptism as an outward sign of commitment to Christ and that is how I received it. A dutiful act to show I was a Christian. I let Amy take the religious lead in our family and she was very committed to teaching our children about God and making sure we went to Church. I was baptized and knew that Jesus was my savior, but I was not dramatically changed in my mind or spirit. I seldom prayed, read the bible, and was not able to ‘enter’ in to worship like others around me. I heard many things in sermons and messages that I questioned, or did not understand, but I never took the time to find answers. Mostly, I observed and judged in my own mind. This went on for another 33 years.
After many years I knew more bible stories, and verses, but God was still distant. Of all the things that happen in a normal church service, the one that always gave me a sense of respect, awe, and reverence was communion. Once a month, or less frequent in some churches we attended, communion was served. The juice and wafer were symbolic of the Bible’s account of the body and blood of Christ and the ceremony was performed in remembrance of Him. Amy’s brother was a Roman Catholic priest and we occasionally went to mass so I was aware Catholics thought it was actually the blood and body of Christ. Even though I could not take communion with the Catholics, I was impacted with this difference in belief and thought I was missing something special. I liked the mystical concept of the bread and wine becoming the body and blood of Christ because there was very little of the mystical in the churches I attended. There was emotion, for sure, but that was different. I thought about the two views of communion. One was right and one was wrong, or both were wrong.
In 2015, 41 years after my Chick encounter, I had a life changing event. One Sunday, at the church we were attending, the assistant Pastor prepared to serve communion and said,
“Take the cracker and juice in your hand…”
I had heard the body of Christ called the wafer, bread, and body, but I had not heard it called the “cracker”. To me, this seemed wrong, and disrespectful. Something was stirred deep in my spirit. I asked myself,
“is it really the body, or just a cracker”.
I can’t explain exactly what happened, but knew I could not go on sitting passively with questions in my head about this, and so many other things. This time, I was going to look for some answers. This was a turning point in my life.
Shortly after I decided to find some answers, my son- in-law invited me to check out a Greek Orthodox Christian church. I knew nothing about Orthodoxy, and just figured they were another flavor of Catholic. The Sunday service was formal, and parts of the service were in Greek. We stood in the back, and sometime during the service we left. I said to myself, “This is not for me.” But, for some reason, we went to a couple of bible studies at the Greek Church, and the Priest told us there was another Orthodox church in town where the service was in English. We went there. The Bible study, called an inquirer’s class, was very interesting and enlightening.
We read from the book The Faith by Clark Carleton. We covered a lot of subjects and it was one ah-ha moment after another. I attended classes for two years. I was looking for something that was solidly grounded in Christian history that would give me the confidence to say to myself I was a Christian, and why I was a Christian. I was disillusioned with seeing people changing churches so much. Here one week, gone the next. I was open to learning and that led to a gradual change about my my notions of God and started a strong desire to know the truth.
The Orthodox Church teaches a very different view of God and His plan of salvation. It was not the same as my view that had developed throughout my life. I like the way Father Jeffery Frate describes salvation, or the reconciling of God and man.
“The atonement is understood in a simple and direct way, in that Jesus went into the realm of death and hell to rescue humanity to bring us back to life. As it says in Hebrews 2:14, the reason the Son of God appeared was to destroy the works of the devil. Because of the fall of Adam and Eve, our ability to hear the voice of God, to remain in union with Him, was damaged, because of our sins. We were being held captive (by Satan). At death all the righteous dead were filing into the realm of Hades where they would be imprisoned forever and Jesus came to earth to set them free. In order to free us, Jesus had to go into the realm of death, and that meant becoming a human being, being born of a woman, living an earthly life, and then allowing himself to be killed. We see Him on the cross, not looking like he’s writhing in agony, but looking like a hero. He retains this heroic status in Orthodoxy because we look upon Him as our Redeemer, our Savior, our deliverer who with His boldness, and His power, and His compassion, suffered and died and went into Hades in order to set us free.” (Father Jeffery Frate)
Because this belief was so different from mine, I wanted to look into why and how I was influenced by such different teachings. I was shocked to find multiple theories of the atonement and that many bible scholars today continue to develop modified theories. I seldom heard the word atonement, but every church has their core belief of what atonement is and that belief permeates all the teaching, no matter how sublime. I was exposed to a lot of different churches and meetings – Young Life, Navigators, Campus Crusade, Southern Baptist, Open Bible, Word of Faith, Assembly of God, and more.
My first view of God, as you recall, was formed by Chick Publications. The publisher, Jack Chick, was an Independent Baptist and his message of atonement is called penal substitution. The penal substitution theory teaches that Jesus suffered the penalty for mankind’s sins. It states that divine forgiveness must satisfy divine justice, that is, that God is not willing or able to simply forgive sin without first requiring a satisfaction for it. Another way of saying it is, God’s righteousness demands punishment for human sin. Many of the protestant reformers believed this and it is the prevailing theory in western Christianity.
As my ideas about Christianity formed, I found the feelings of guilt from constant failure were not being relieved from asking God for forgiveness. The more I failed, the more I hardened my emotions against this feeling. Each year, I put less and less effort into living a Godly life. Eventually, I was just going through the motions, but my heart and mind were numb toward God and religion.
I read about key figures in Christian history. Including Anselm of Canterbury who proposed a satisfaction theory for the atonement. Luther and Calvin added to Anselm and modified the theory by adding a legal connection that Christ died to satisfy God’s wrath against human sin. This added the penal part. Christ did substitute Himself for the purpose of redeeming man to the Trinity, but the penal substitutionary theory suggests punishment, or the idea that God punished Christ with the wrath meant for me. Jonathan Edwards, a hero of the Great Awakening in America, in his famous sermon, Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God said,
“…he (God) is of purer eyes than to bear to have you in his sight; you are ten thousand times more abominable in his eyes…”
“you have offended him infinitely more…”
Jonathan Edwards is the hero of many evangelicals today.
There are several more theories, but I was attracted to the one that dominated for 1100 years before Anselm, and still exists today in the Eastern Orthodox Church. However, after listening for years to these theories I could not personally come to terms with the idea that God, who is love, had to punish Christ on the cross. I know the Old Testament lamb is symbol of Christ, and that the lamb was sacrificed, but the idea of God punishing the lamb makes God look mean. This revelation was huge to me. I was struck with amazement when I first heard the Orthodox message of redemption and I remember clearly a knot forming in my chest and a sense of finding something very valuable that I lost. I cried as the thought sunk deep into my heart. I now longer thought that it was God’s justice that I needed to be saved from. For years I wrongly thought that God’s offended honor had to be appeased, or satisfied. I don’t think I am alone in this thinking. This is the view that caused Freud to call God a “sadistic father.”
When I was very young I remember singing at the Presbyterian Church,
“God in three persons, blessed Trinity”.
The Trinity was a distant concept and seldom mentioned in churches I attended. I knew they were “one” but they seemed to have different agendas. I heard many times,
“God sees us through Christ.”
Or, He cannot look upon sin, and since I was a sinner, full of sin, it was logical to think He was different than the loving Jesus. These thoughts came from one place, Satan. I know they are wrong. He is not too holy to come in contact with me, when I was
“yet a sinner, He died for me”.
I am still a sinner. He does not have an ego, like us, and maybe we can all agree to that. But, when asked if God can be offended, I have heard,
“Yes, God can be offended, and he is offended.”
If God does not have an ego, how can he offended? God’s justice is not our idea of justice. Just read Mathew 20:9, and you will see His idea of justice is not that of men. His justice is Mercy and Truth. There is no chasm, and never was, as the Navigators told me. Mankind separated himself from God, not the other way around. God is not on one side, and me on the other. He is “the lover of mankind,” who came to me, and the world, and exists beyond any “divine” legalism and is not subject to our idea of justice. God is, and has always been, near me.
“If I make my bed in hell, behold thou art there”. (Psalm 139:8)
So, finally, I get to the juice and cracker bit. The Orthodox call communion the Eucharist, the Greek word for thanksgiving. I once heard it said that Orthodox don’t try to define what happens to the bread and wine, we just do what Jesus did.
“Jesus took bread, spoke a blessing and broke it, and gave it to the disciples, saying, “Take eat; this is My body.” Mark 14:22. And, “Then He took the cup, gave thanks, and gave it to them, saying, “Drink from it, all of you.” Mathew 26:27. Finally, in John 6:23, “Truly, truly I tell you, unless you eat the flesh and drink the blood of the Son of Man, you have no life in you.”
There are no theories or need for explanation such as transubstantiation, or remembrance, or mere presence. It is just as He does, that’s all.
I can identify a general time when I became more aware of God, but most of my Christian growth has occurred in the last five years. I continue to work it out, day by day, partaking in God’s nature. (Phil 2:12-15) I don’t know what other path I might have taken, but this one sustains me. I said earlier, I did not like church, but that has changed. I love going to Liturgy. Which is miracle in itself, because it lasts two hours and there is a one hour warm up called Orthros before the Liturgy. For someone that has had “ants in his pants” since birth, as my grandmother would say, it is indeed miraculous. In the Liturgy, God’s name is lifted up about 90 times, Christ 59 times, the Holy Spirit 35 times, Mary 10 times. I have heard there are over 50,000 hymns in a one year cycle of worship! The Liturgy is God-centric, not ego-centric. In addition to worship, there are so many tools that have been left to me by my Christian ancestors. Writings, the Creed, fasting, daily prayers, incense, stories about saints and martyrs, and unlimited hymns and prayers.
All designed to involve all of my senses in Worship so that I would not forget the Mercy of God and that all that is good is imprinted in my mind, my memory, and soul.
I thank God for all the people He has put in my life, and am blessed from knowing them. They helped to form what I am today. I pray the Holy Spirit will give me wisdom as I continue to read, study, and seek Him. I know there are those who love God and are sincere in their faith. While they may see things differently, I pray God have Mercy on me if I fall to the temptation of judging.
Even so, I want to share this story and how I found a view of God that has changed my life.
A good man, when he finds a good thing, wants to share it. (Monk Arseniye)
The grace of the Lord Jesus Christ, and the love of God, and the communion of the Holy Spirit, be with you all. (II Cor: 13, 14)
*diagrams credit Chick Publications, CRU.org
John Xanthopoulos says
Thank you very much. Illuminating article.