How often have I heard variations on the theme of ‘I’m spiritual, but not religious? You can be spiritual without going to Church. I don’t like organized religion because the church is full of a bunch of hypocrites.’ It sure is. Got that right.
There is no one alive on the earth who is not hypocritical. We say one thing while thinking something else. We make good resolutions and fail. Along with being among our greatest joys and challenge, people can be a pain—inconsistent, erratic and…well, just plain sinful at times.
At the close of existentialist philosopher Jean Paul Sartre’s 1943 play No Exit, which takes place in hell, one of the characters makes what has become an oft-quoted statement regarding the human predicament. “Hell is other people.” To the extent that he is right, that’s a good reason not to be caught dead in a church.
Let’s face it, when the Son of the Living God appeared in the flesh on earth and dwelled among us, He was executed as an enemy of organized religion. Jesus predicted the same would happen for His followers. “Behold, I am sending you out as sheep in the midst of wolves, so be wise as serpents and innocent as doves. Beware of men, for they will deliver you over to courts and flog you in their synagogues.”  “Indeed, the hour is coming when whoever kills you will think he is offering service to God.”  That’s a good enough reason not to associate with Jesus and to stay away from organized religion for sure.
Isn’t it obvious that Jesus did not come among us to form a corporation; to bring a new form of economic expansion or a better political union? He did not come offering us a way to continue living worldly lives while providing a quick fix to things that can go wrong. He didn’t bring new scientific learning or employ techniques of meditation to escape suffering. He did not unveil a plan for eradicating poverty or war in his life-time. Nor did he promise an easy life of glory and privilege for his Apostles and church leaders. He came to unite heaven and earth. That’s why he presents such a threat to the world (and the church) run by man.
Of his twelve original disciples, one betrayed him and committed suicide. Ten others who abandoned him during his arrest and crucifixion all died violent deaths as martyrs faithful to Him. The last one, known as “the beloved disciple” who remained with Him and His mother at His crucifixion, was exiled on the island of Patmos for many years and died of old age shortly before his hundredth birthday.
Christ did not come to bring us a “get out of hell free card” if we are willing to intellectually believe in his historical existence. We can’t get special treatment by memorizing a creed, having an emotional experience, speaking in tongues or by singing about Jesus in praise and worship services instead of going to a rock concert.
These things are not bad, but they are not true Church. There is not one single “thing’ we can do or speak or feel that will put us in the position of being able to take God’s place and be in control of things. The motivation to religiously organize ourselves in that way is part of the ancient seduction that happened in the Garden of Eden and the Church is not immune to this because the Church involves people. And of course, people can be a problem.
In the beginning, the devil intimated to Adam and Eve that if they would offer the world to themselves, then “you shall be as gods.”  But of course he did not read them the fine print which said that in doing so, they would forfeit being in Communion with God, each other and creation. He offered them the tantalizing possibility of being spiritual on their own terms without commitment to anyone or anything beyond pure individualistic self-satisfaction. He introduced them to the illusion of freedom defined as “If you want to, then just do it!” Unchecked, repeated and pursued far enough, this path ruins everything it touches and eventually leads to having to do what you want without regard for anyone else, which is another definition of hell.
The true Church on the other hand, offers a version of freedom that includes authentic relationship with each other. Life in Christ is not a special reprieve from human struggles, but a deeper involvement. The Body of Christ which unites heaven and earth suffers and is wounded in the world just like we are. Christians struggle and fall, get sick and die. Everyone bears a cross. This should come as no surprise, for our true life emerges in its fullness only after death, in the risen Christ.
Jesus was clear and deliberate with his disciples that his Kingdom was not of this world and the realization of “as in heaven so on earth,” would not take place before death and before the end of time. Until then, he said “you will always have the poor with you”  and “there will be wars and rumors of wars until the end.”  If you are looking to be spiritual in this fallen world without suffering and dying, and without struggling in the face of evil to forgive those who hurt you, then you don’t need Jesus.
But if you realize that life is hell to the extent that it can only satisfy desires and provide illusory freedom for self-satisfaction apart from seeking to prepare for the great meeting with Christ after our inevitable death and the passing away of all things, and if you seek to make a total self-offering at the feet of Christ, the Only Lover of Humankind, in response to what He has done, then the Church is for you.
Fr. Ernesto Cardenal recognizes this deeper reality to human potential when he writes “We are not a meaningless passion as Sartre calls us, but a passion whose meaning is God.”  These two perspectives could not be more different, yet there is truth to both of them and this is recognized most clearly in the Church.
To understand this we must realize what Fr. Philotheos Faros rightly points out, paraphrasing St. John Chrysostom, that the Church [Ekklesia] “is neither an establishment nor a permanent accomplishment but something that has to be constantly pursued….It is not an institution, organization or corporation, but an event.”  The event is the encounter with Christ and all who are beloved to Him, both those in the Church and those yet to consciously realize and yearn to respond to Him. How do we prepare for such an encounter?
St. Paul’s first letter to the Church at Corinth was written after he had received word from Chloe’s people that his beloved community was forming into factions around allegiance to various apostolic figures. “I am of Apollos” one group says, while another emphasized that they are followers of Peter and a third group of Paul. In this way each group subtly presumes to have a certain preferential place above the others by comparison. Because of the one they follow, they are just “a little more right” or “a little more Orthodox” than the others.
Instead of all uniting in repentance and love as followers of Christ, complementing and harmonizing with one another’s spiritual gifts under the direction of the Holy Spirit like instruments in a great orchestra, the Corinthian Church was beginning to be divided by emotional attachments and the judgments and comparisons that inevitably help to give an identity to the individualistic vainglorious self, independent of Communion with Christ.
St Paul could see that the face of Christ was being eclipsed by the allegiance to His apostles and the self-satisfaction and judgments of others that inevitably accompanies belief in one’s own righteousness or right belief. St Paul sets about trying to correct the situation by pointing out they are acting like “ordinary men of flesh” driven about by passions and personal attachments rather than being transformed by Grace in Christ.
To make his point clear he praises the Corinthians from within their own self-estimation as being “wise in Christ” compared to himself and the other apostles who by comparison are “fools for Christ’s sake.” He praises the Corinthians as being “strong” while the apostles are weak. He says, “You have become Kings. Already you are rich.” You are “held in honor” by one another, while we apostles are “held in disrepute.” Summing up the problem and bringing the knife of his spiritual surgery to its deepest incision, he writes, “Brethren, God has exhibited us apostles as last of all, like men sentenced to death; because we have become a spectacle to the world, to angels and to men.” 
In his homily on this Pauline passage St. John Chrysostom comments
[H]e spoke in a way to abash them; implying that it is impossible for these contraries to agree, neither can things so distant from one another concur. “For how can it be, he says, ‘that you should be wise, but we fools in the things relating to Christ? That is: the one sort beaten and despised and dishonored and esteemed as nothing; the others enjoying honor and looked up to by many as a wise and prudent kind of people….Let us not then desire any others to applaud us. For this is to insult Him; hastening by Him, as if insufficient to admire us, we make the best of our way to our fellow servants. 
What happens when we begin comparing and attaching ourselves to one another in this way? Failing to see Christ and the Holy Spirit orchestrating life among us as living icons, we attach to the saints and even to Christ in order to secure a special place for ourselves, e.g. ‘My elder is the greatest and most perfect elder and I am his disciple which makes me a cut above the others. He is more humble, more orthodox, more ascetical and truer to Holy Tradition than the other elders and because I follow him, that places me in a secure position.’ We do the same thing with emotional attachment to church as “humanly organized religion” rather than a supernatural event of Holy Communion which must be pursed with repentance throughout our lives.
To the extent that I am comparing myself with others to gain stature, I can be sure that my inner press secretary is in charge and I am not living in repentance. St Paul describes his life as an Apostle in stark contrast to the comforts, esteem and privilege of the Corinthians in their own eyes which is allowing them to break into factions and begin to question his ministry. The Corinthians were beginning to place themselves as judges above him and “look for a better model” according to worldly measures, comparing how he speaks with the eloquence of some of the other Apostles.
St. Paul knows the problems encountered on that road of self-elevation. He once regarded himself as something special because of his attainments and status in organized religion of his time. His self-assurance allowed him to go about rounding up Christians in order to have them executed like Stephen whose death by stoning he assented to. Now he writes of himself and his fellow Apostles who pursue a different goal which the world cannot offer.
We hunger and thirst, we are ill-clad, buffeted, homeless. We labor, working with our own hands. When reviled, we bless; when persecuted, we endure; when slandered, we try to conciliate; we have become, and are now, as the refuse of the world, the off-scouring of all things. I do not write this to make you ashamed, but to admonish you as my beloved children. For though you have countless guides in Christ, you do not have many fathers. For I became your father in Christ Jesus through the gospel. I urge you, then, be imitators of me. 
In the Gospel of Matthew we are told that “a man came up to Jesus and kneeling before him said, “Lord, have mercy on my son, for he is an epileptic and he suffers terribly; for often he falls into the fire, and often into the water. And I brought him to your disciples, and they could not heal him. 
Now epilepsy is a modern word for a medical condition involving seizures and is not likely to be an accurate description of the full situation. What is more relevant is that the condition the boy suffered compelled him to extremes, “from fire to water.” This reflects the human condition which ranges from hell to heaven. The human heart is sick from the consequences of having eaten the apple and can’t find rest.
The disciples tried to help, but they failed. Why? Perhaps the disciples were falling prey to the same old ancient voice that never tires of testing us. After all, they had previously been casting out demons and performing miracles by the power of the Holy Spirit. What was one more healing? Jesus was aware of this tendency and had warned them on another occasion “Don’t be excited that you have cast out devils, but that your names are written in heaven,”  that is that you are in communion with the true Church synonymous with His Person.
Without any apparent love for the epileptic boy, they had tried to cast out the demons from some kind of confidence and expectation they had in their own vainglorious imagination. Jesus points out that their faith was unsupported by the kinds of responses to God that are indicative of real faith and love. They were neglecting prayer and fasting. They were more concerned with “who was the greatest among them.  Comparing ourselves to each other and jockeying for position, even secretly in our minds and neglecting fasting, prayer, and confession is always an indication of egotism and being tested by the devil, in danger of departing from Communion with the Humble Christ.
What was the solution? Simple. Jesus said “Bring him to me.” This is the same thing he said to do with the five loaves and two fish. Offering them up to God for a blessing before receiving them back and giving them out to feed the five thousand, they were transformed into an abundance that fed a hunger that bread alone could not satisfy. This is the central action or event of the Church in which the priest offers the wine and bread up to God with the words “Thine own of Thine own we offer Thee, in all and for all.” Jesus comes to restore the Eucharistic life of Communion which Adam and Eve lost when they “offered the world to themselves” without bringing it to Christ for a blessing first. This is the “event” of the Church which we pursue our whole life long—to approach Him and receive the love he offers, offering our lives in return, “in all and for all” joining Him in returning to our Father in Heaven in union with Him by the power of the Holy Spirit.
Jesus’s final words to the Apostles after he explains to them that their failure to heal the boy is a result of the lukewarmness of their faith and their laziness in regards to struggling for freedom from being a slave to their desires and self-satisfaction are vital. It is what St. Paul was trying to help his beloved Corinthians understand. Jesus said to Apostles who were concerned with the failure of their super powers of apostleship, “The Son of man is to be delivered into the hands of men, and they will kill him, and he will be raised on the third day.”
Christian faith ends in death in this world. Before that, depending on the heat and fervor of our love, it involves a coming down to earth of all heavenly aspirations as we confront the problem of the human tendency to swing from heavenly fire of the Holy Spirit and the sanctifying waters of baptism, to the worldly fires of the passions and the waters of the pursuit of worldly happiness.
We keep falling for the same old seduction of a Christianity without a cross, a world offered to ourselves, as we do with one another, rather than a world to which we, in Christ, offer ourselves with Christ for one another in love. Love created the world. And love is what restores it. The Church is the Risen Body of Christ whom we pursue because he visits us in the places that we, in our complacency and love for comfort and esteem, don’t want to go. This is why the Orthodox say, “through the Cross, joy has come to all the world.” It is a joy and peace that does not come from human satisfaction and a power that reveals itself most clearly through our inability to heal the human condition, our own or others, apart from Christ.
This seems such a small thing, something so easily missed, so easily underestimated and left aside as if of no consequence. And yet it is precisely this action of “offering the world to myself without a blessing” that places me on the path of feeling privileged enough to judge my brothers and sisters and to set out in pursuit of the false spirituality of “being all I can be” by taking God’s place without being part of His Church.
Even Jesus doesn’t do this and He is God! He offers everything He is and has received first to God the Father and then to the world. He Himself becomes the Bread for our Being by offering Himself to God, suffering and dying our death in order to be raised by God so that we can be restored to life.
Met. Alexios offers a valuable observation on why Jesus chose the mustard seed in his example with the Apostles of how powerful a faith even that tiny is. He says “For such a terribly small seed, mustard is incredibly hot; to use even a little in a dish changes the taste entirely. Our Lord knows that it is not the “size” of our faith that matters, but the warmth that dwells within our souls.” 
Clearly the father had the heat of love in his heart for his child and he went to great lengths to appeal for his healing, humbling himself before Jesus and praying. The disciples by contrast, lacked this heat, perhaps because at that time, they had become complacent in their apostolic work and were in ministry for their own elevation and esteem. Having cast out demons and healed diseases before, like Moses striking the rock,  the disciples expected to do this. Moses was described as the humblest man on the face of the earth  and yet he too, as all human beings do, had fallen to complacency and acted without God’s blessing. So we should not be surprised.
To expect to be spiritual without love in our heart for the aching need of those who are in pain and without need to pursue the event of Holy Communion through prayer and fasting and life together in Community is not the Orthodox Way. It is not a life rooted in Eucharistic Communion, a life of love, but one resting on the illusions of one’s own individualistic imagined power and glory.
Faith without recognition of our life-long continuing need to struggle for Grace is not faith. “Beware of the leaven of the Pharisees”  Jesus preached. It brings only worldly esteem and leads people toward becoming the judge and executioner of God in our midst. It happens ever so, so subtly in the beginning. It happened to Adam and Eve. It happened to Moses. It happened to the Apostles. It happened to the Corinthians and it will happen to us. The temptation to seek spirituality apart from the Body of Christ is just another form of self-deception and the danger of it goes to our last breath, whether a part of organized religion or not. Nevertheless, it remains true that “It is not good for the man to be alone” —whether actually, or in his imagination.
 Mt 10:16-17
 Jn. 16:2.
 Gen 3:5.
 Jn. 12:8.
 Mt 24:6.
 Cardenal, E. Abide in Love, New York: Orbis Books, 1995, p. 25.
 Fr. Philotheos Faros, Functional and Dysfunctional Christianity, Brookline, MA: Holy Cross Orthodox Press, 1998, pp. 75-86.
 cf I Cor. 4:9-16.
 from St. John Chrysostom’s Homily 12 on I Cor.
 I Cor. 4:9-16
 Mt. 17:14-23.
 Lk. 10:20
 Lk. 22:2
 from weekly Atlanta Metropolis newsletter, August 23, 2019.
 Deut. 32:52.
 Num. 12:3.
 Mt. 16:6.
 Ge. 2:18.