A Jew InwardlyFr. Barnabas Powell
“That’s the real McCoy!” I know, some of you younger readers will stare at the screen and say “What?” But believe it or not, that is a famous American idiom that has an interesting origin. In fact, there are several stories about how the phrase “The Real McCoy” came about. The top two origin stories are both interesting. The first story refers to an American inventor named Elijah McCoy. In 1872, Elijah invented all kinds of gadgets that were really helpful and worked great. Other companies tried copying his designs but they never worked as well as Elijah’s inventions. So, folks started asking if this or that gadget was “the real McCoy. A competing story comes from the time of Prohibition in the US. A famous rum runner in Florida named Bill McCoy was the first to sock a ship with booze from the Caribbean and sail it to three miles off the coast of New York. Bill never watered down his very popular product and folks started insisting that the booze they were buying was the “real McCoy.”
Regardless of how it started, this insistence on authenticity is nothing new. If you stop to think about it, this desire for “the real thing” drives a lot of our choices and judgments.
Isn’t it amazing how quickly we declare something “authentic” when it agrees with our preconceived notions? Convenient, don’t you think? One of my favorites is when someone claims to be a Christian simply on the basis of their loosely held thoughts or the “happy accident” of their birth. To be sure, it is a great joy and priceless advantage to get a spiritual head start in the Christian Way, but is it really authentic to claim to be something that doesn’t affect your life in any meaningful way? Do you just get to name yourself something even if all the evidence points to a different reality?
Look at our lesson today in Romans 2:28-29; 3:1-18. Here’s the main portion of the reading, but please read it all:
BRETHREN, he is not a real Jew who is one outwardly, nor is true circumcision something external and physical. He is a Jew who is one inwardly, and real circumcision is a matter of the heart, spiritual and not literal. His praise is not from men but from God. Then what advantage has the Jew? Or what is the value of circumcision? Much in every way. To begin with, the Jews are entrusted with the oracles of God. What if some were unfaithful? Does their faithlessness nullify the faithfulness of God? By no means! Let God be true though every man be false, as it is written, “That thou mayest be justified in thy words, and prevail when thou art judged.” But if our wickedness serves to show the justice of God, what shall we say? That God is unjust to inflict wrath on us? (I speak in a human way.) By no means! For then how could God judge the world? But if through my falsehood God’s truthfulness abounds to his glory, why am I still being condemned as a sinner? And why not do evil that good may come? – as some people slanderously charge us with saying. Their condemnation is just. What then? Are we Jews any better off? No, not at all; for we have already charged that all men, both Jews and Greeks, are under the power of sin, as it is written:
“None is righteous, no, not one;
no one understands, no one seeks for God.
Saint Paul here dives headlong into the real power of the Christian message for his day, and ours as well. First, he starts by insisting that being a Jew isn’t so much a racial reality as a spiritual reality that shows up in our actions. By insisting that Faith be more than mere race, St. Paul forever removes the notion that God is more interested in a “pureblood” than a conversion of the heart. Imagine that: Faith-based on a true, and noble practice, and not merely reduced to habit or “birthright.” To actually practice the Faith is to BE the Faith.
As the great theologian, Forrest Gump declared “Stupid is as stupid does!”
But then he quickly adds wisdom so as not to reduce the value of this wonderful blessing of heritage and lineage. The great value in this long heritage of Faith is precisely the opportunity to actually practice the Faith that is the central treasure of your heritage! In fact, it is those who devalue their faith heritage by reducing it to some mere “cultural” expression or accidental habit that are really debasing the Faith. Just look at every generation that falls for this delusion of “accidental” piety; their track record of passing on a robust and purposeful faith to the next generation is abysmal! It never works.
No, the key to avoiding the poverty of a Faith in name only is a brutal honesty of two essential insights: First, there is great value in the heritage of Faith through the centuries, and we display how we truly value this gift by actually practicing the Faith, not merely enshrining a museum to the Faith. And Two, realizing this treasure was meant to heal the common spiritual illness of all of us, no matter when or where we were born. Because all of us suffer from the same spiritual illness. And it is in seeing this universal remedy in the Faith that actually overcomes the first temptation to reduce the Faith to habit AND insists we truly love our neighbors who have not had the privilege we have in having this heritage of faith.
St. Peter the Athonite is a classic example of this living the treasure of the Faith. He was born to noble parents in Constantinople with all the advantages of being born in the capital of the Empire and the city filled with churches. He entered the Roman Army and was sent to fight against the invading tribes of Arab background who were regularly attacking the Christian Empire in attempts to spread the new religion of Islam. St. Peter was captured and sent to a prison in Syria where he struggled against attempts to convert him. He was miraculously freed from prison and escaped to Rome where he became a monk, eventually settling on the Holy Mount Athos where he lived in a cave as a solitary monk. It is said he suffered many temptations from the evil one but, with the help of the Theotokos, he struggled well and eventually died in peace.
Today, are you a true “believer?” Are you ” the real thing?” If you answer “no” then you are honest enough to be a true believer! And it all hinges on your willingness to be Orthodox on Purpose!
P.S. Having received the noetic and heavenly light in your heart, O Peter, you were seen to be a most radiant vessel of the pure Trinity, and you received the grace to work miracles, and you cry: Alleluia.