A former high school classmate, now an Evangelical Protestant pastor, cites me an object lesson for not giving up hope for someone’s conversion to Christianity. He even mentioned to me that if people were wagering as to who would convert, he would have covered all the bets placed on me! For unlike most Orthodox Christian converts, I came to knowledge of the Holy Orthodox Church before I came to a saving knowledge of Jesus the Christ! Highly unlikely, given that my family’s religious background was Buddhist, with relatives of various Buddhist sects— in no small part for reasons of ethnic heritage. In hindsight, I always had an interest in religion, but my knowledge of Christianity was rather superficial. It was in high school that I was confronted with the first of many conversion attempts. My buddies became “born again,” and wanted to “share their faith” with me, especially when they found out that my family members were “heathens” and “idol worshipers.” So just to argue with them, I started reading the Bible and Church history to put them “on the spot” over embarrassing historical facts (e.g., religious wars) or about current but aberrant religious trends (e.g., extreme interpretations of Biblical prophecy). However, the more I read, the more I realized that long-held misconceptions about Christianity (e.g., forced conversions, bigotry, etc.) were not in accordance with either Scripture or early Church history.
By time I was in college, three major questions confronted me— 1) amidst all the doctrinal and denominational confusion, which church is “right,” 2) who is Jesus anyway, and 3) how can one be certain at all anyway? The first question was the least difficult of the three for me to discern. It was the Orthodox Church that emphasized continuity, rather than the development, of doctrine— i.e., maintaining “the faith delivered once to the saints” (Jude 3). Quite a surprise to discover that the Ecumenical Councils did not declare new doctrines but rather, in the face of erroneous teachings, defined what the Church had always believed “by everyone, everywhere, always,” to paraphrase St. Vincent of Lerins (+445 AD). So, if Christianity is true, then it’s the Orthodox Church that has the best claim to being the Early Church by neither adding to nor subtracting from the Faith through the centuries. Hence, I would become Orthodox— if Christianity is true. The second question—the Person of Jesus—presented a far greater challenge. Buddhism would be willing to acknowledge Jesus as an “Enlightened One” but not as both human and divine. Ultimately, I was confronted with the same question that Our Lord asked of His Apostles: “Who do men say that I, the Son of Man, am?” (Matt 16:13). There are only three possibilities (re: C.S. Lewis, Mere Christianity)— for Jesus to claim to be more than just a “good teacher” (“…Why do you call me good? No one is good but One, that is, God” (Matt 19:17)), the very Name of God (“…before Abraham was, I AM!” (John 8:58; compare with Ex 3:14)), and to rise again from the dead (Matt 20:19 and Luke 18:33), he had to be either a 1) deceiver, 2) delusional, or 3) truth teller. The third question— the reliability of the Biblical record— determined the answer to the second one. The Gospel and Epistle writers likewise either 1) made it all up or 2) preached the truth. If Jesus was not who He claimed to be, then at least one of His Apostles would have recanted, which the Roman authorities would have proclaimed far and wide, and the Early Church would have been strangled in its own swaddling clothes. All of the original Apostles, except St. John died violent deaths— highly unlikely that they would willingly lay down their lives for “cunningly devised fables…” (II Pet I:16).
It was not until I was in graduate school that I first visited an Orthodox Church— at the invitation of an Orthodox priest. Holy Resurrection Antiochian Orthodox Church in Tucson AZ, a pan-Orthodox parish with English as the common language of the Liturgy, provided me with a church home for learning more about Holy Orthodoxy. The more I sought to find out, there was more to like— salvation is indeed a life-long personal relationship (i.e., “uniting oneself”) with Christ, the Church is a hospital for souls rather than a court of law, the words of the Liturgy are taken directly from Scripture, the early Church Fathers were the original Bible commentators, Church doctrines are based on the consistent interpretation of the whole Bible, theology does not speculate beyond what God has chosen not to reveal through His Holy Word, and the extremes of both legalism and license are to be avoided, to mention only a few. There were also practices and customs that took me awhile to accept— admittedly, kissing the Cross makes much more sense than burning it! What finally convinced me was what I once considered as among the most blatant “contradictions” in the New Testament. Both Ss. Matthew and Mark recorded that the two thieves reviled Jesus at the crucifixion (Matt 27:44 and Mark 15:32) but St. Luke noted that only one did so and that the other not only rebuked the first but then implored “…Lord, remember me when You come into Your Kingdom!” (Luke 23:40-42). Rather, I finally realized that this is among the greatest accounts of repentance recorded in the New Testament, short of the conversion of St. Paul (Acts 9:1-18). In many ways, I too was once a spiritual rebel, and I too once cursed the Holy Name of Our Lord. So if a condemned criminal can repent, then so can I! Over three decades have elapsed since my reception into Holy Orthodoxy through the sacraments of Baptism and Chrismation. More recently, over the past decade, I am most grateful that Our All-Merciful Savior has preserved me in remission from leukemia, but that’s another story…
- by Karl Tsuji (the unworthy Reader, Simon) - Updated April 6, 2012