“For whoever desires to save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for My sake and the gospel’s (in Greek – euangelion: eu – “well, good” & angelio “to announce” ) will save it.” With these words, Christ the Lord equates the Gospel with Himself, that is the Gospel is an experience of Christ the Lord.
Christianity is essentially evangelic, more specifically Orthodoxy which is the fullness of Christianity. Christ our Lord gave the commandment: “Go into all the world and preach the Gospel, making disciples of all men.” The original evangelists were faithful Jews who went out, according to the command of Christ, and preached to the pagan Roman world. Various peoples were converted, including the Greeks; together with Latins, Scythians, Ethiopians, Persians, Armenians, and then, Germanic tribes, Franks, Saxons, Irish, Scottish, Slavs – the Bulgars, Serbs, Rus’ians, on the list could go; and a host of saints is connected with each mission. Evangelism is woven into the very tapestry of the Church. Evangelism is the encounter and experience of the living Christ; the Lord invites us to be participators in that event.
America was originally evangelized by the Church of Russia, beginning in Alaska and then down to the “lower 48” – St. Herman, St. Innocent, St. Jacob, St. Tikhon, St. John the Hieromartyr, to name but a few. They left the beauties of Orthodox Russia and traveled halfway around the globe to shine the light of the Gospel upon our land. They labored and sacrificed, many times living in poverty, for our salvation, for a people who were not their own; in a nation that was foreign to them. Why? That we may receive the Gospel and bask in Its illuminating light; they were filled with the Evangelical spirit of Orthodoxy.
These missionaries had a very deep conviction that the Truth of Orthodoxy is not just for Slavs or Greeks, but indeed for all peoples. They had a truly Catholic vision. They challenged the Orthodox Church in the American lands to reach out even to other Christian communities and invite them back into fellowship with the fullness of Faith, the Apostolic Church. Our fathers and mothers in the faith here in America left us a clear mandate, as has our Lord Jesus Himself, to preach the Gospel.
How? I will not attempt to give some method, to this day I struggle with what evangelism practically looks like in our times in America. Yet there is a vital and proper spirit, a vision (and conversely an improper), that we must acquire as a foundation for evangelism. This is what I want to examine briefly. The topic given to me is “Contemporary Witness.” So to this end, I will bring forward two contemporary witnesses and some reflections built on their words.
The first is the martyred priest Daniel Sysoev. He was shot and killed in his church in Russia on Nov. 19th, 2009, for preaching and evangelizing. He worked intensely with Muslims, boldly seeking to bring them to Christ. He was gunned down by a fanatical Muslim. To this day groups of Orthodox street preachers are inspired by his model to continue to evangelize.
Let us hear his instruction, “You mustn’t fear preaching Christ. there is no need to philosophize, we just have to preach, and then as for the fruits—Lord Himself knows and directs things according to His good will. We are not going after quantities of people but quality.”
Fear, fear of man, is one of the primary things that hold us back. Like the Apostles after the Crucifixion, locked in the upper room for fear of the Jews, we, at times, become confined in our churches for fear of the world. Fear because the world assumes a false pretense of wisdom and sophistication that scorns the “foolishness of the Gospel” as St. Paul says. Are we ready to be fools of sorts for Christ? And fear is connected with doubt, we sometimes see ourselves, as Orthodox, as just another flavor of Christianity and we lose in a great degree the Evangelic and Catholic vision of the One Holy Orthodox Church. And we cultivate rather a sectarian vision of Orthodoxy, which is not healthy. Some may question whether Orthodoxy has what it takes to function in and answer the questions and issues of the “modern world,” after all we are only following a “pre-modern” religion, or so some, even purported Orthodox voices, will tell us. And possibly we doubt that Christ will actually respond and hear us or rise to meet our feeble efforts and so we fail to act for fear of failure. We lose faith in the ultimate power of the Gospel and therefore it lies unused and as it were powerless in our midst. But does the Gospel grow old, does it grow powerless? No. Can the Gospel become irrelevant? No. Never. But the hearts of men can grow cold and hard, and we can grow languid in our following of the Gospel. But what does Fr. Daniel say? Do not fear to preach Christ. And what does Christ say? “Fear not little flock … I am with you even unto the end of the age … peace be with you … as the Father sent Me so I sent you.” What then have we to fear? If God is for us who can be against us? As we chanted in the first week of Lent, God is with us understand all ye nations and submit yourselves, for God is with us! These are not empty words.
My second witness is St. Justin Popovich of Serbia, who also lived in our times, he reposed in the Lord in 1979. He spoke much on the Evangelic virtues. Here is a brief quote-
“Evangelic love is a power that changes life into divine joy … Love is real when it does all the evangelic works for a brother: righteousness, mercy, prayer, and so on … Whoever loves his brother prays for him, fasts for him, is merciful towards him, meek, humble, and patient … Divine Truth is the soul of Divine love; and all the divine perfections are in it, for in it Divine righteousness, Divine goodness, and the rest of the perfections are present. This is what really comforts the human heart, a heart that lives and sacrifices itself for its brother …”
“There is no fear in love; perfect love casts out fear” as St. John the Theologian tells us. We must see, as the Gospel teaches us, every person as a brother or sister, even our enemies. We must begin to cultivate in our hearts true love for every person that we meet and a desire that they too begin to encounter the living Christ. In short, we may simply say, we must faithfully cultivate the Christian life in our own selves, which is to experience Christ Jesus. Ultimately everything that the Body of Christ offers to us is to bring us into this life-changing experience of Christ the Lord. Every prayer service is latent with divine power, which will cultivate in our own hearts the continued indwelling of the Holy Spirit if we let it. In short, to evangelize we ourselves must be being evangelized, that is transformed by the power of God, the evangelic virtues. Orthodoxy is and must always be only about a true encounter and transformation in Christ by the might of the Holy Spirit. Our goal must be to facilitate encounters with Christ Jesus because only Christ saves. When the Jews evangelized the Greeks they made Christians out of them, they did not make them be Jewish; and when the Greeks evangelized the Slavs, they made Christians out of them. Orthodox cultural heritage is intended to give energy, grounding, and support to the continued evangelic preaching of Orthodoxy; but it must always be secondary, otherwise, it is in danger of becoming idolatry. It must never become an excuse to keep the Gospel just for us. We must comprehend that first and for most we are Christians, new creation, offspring of the New Adam, Christ our Lord, in Whom there is neither Jew nor Greek; I dare to add, Russian, Ukrainian, Serbian, Romanian, Arab, American and so on; by Faith we are all brought into unity, one new race, in Christ the Lord.
We must desire that everyone would be saved and come to a knowledge of God. Long for it sincerely, pray for it, fast for it; and take every opportunity to share the Gospel, yes even using words; say with Elder Paisius of Romania, “May we all inherit a little corner of Paradise.” Evangelic love must share, as Christ ore Lord gave Himself that humanity may have life most abundantly. Of course there is wisdom in applying evangelism, but it is one that will come in the doing. The Lord says, “I will give you words and wisdom that none of your adversaries will be able to withstand or contradict” (Lk. 21:15).
Yet there is a certain apathy that plagues us at times. Sometimes we are content to be in our beautiful Churches enjoying the fullness of the faith while millions around us perish for a lack of true spiritual food. We think and excuse ourselves, evangelism is a Protestant thing, or Orthodoxy is for Slavs, or Greeks, or for those certain folks who really like Church history and stuff like that. While all around us there is a severe famine, it is the famine of Truth, a famine for the Word of God. And we as Orthodox have the storehouse that will feed the multitudes. The heavenly bread which is given for the life of the world.
The Gospel of Jesus Christ is the only thing that will save humanity. It is the only thing that will deliver our own Nation in its present state of turmoil and moral decay. It is the only thing that will give us the courage and fearlessness to endure in a time when “the love of many grows cold” and to proclaim the Truth. Our fellow Americans are in desperate need of the Gospel, of Orthodoxy. Maybe they just do not know it yet. It is the only hope for our nation. It is the only hope for our world.
Our Lord says a very scary thing, “To whom much is given, much is required.” As Orthodox we claim, and rightly so, to have the Fulness of faith. Thus, we can firmly assume that we must give an answer for this talent of faith which is entrusted to us. Will we bury it in the ground out of fear? Or will we, as is required of us, strive to be ambassadors for Christ with those around us? Thereby multiplying the talent. What does that look like? I am not exactly sure, but I believe it will become clearer as we strive to be faithful in our vocation. But we must, as our witnesses tell us, fear not to preach Christ and we must cultivate deep love, the evangelic virtues, for everyone around us– believers and unbelievers; a longing that all would encounter and experience Christ the lover of mankind.
The task of evangelization falls to each one of us in this Church this evening, according to our capacity. As of this moment, there are no other feet to bring the good news to this area; no other mouths to proclaim the Gospel; no other hands to bare the light of Christ but ours. May we find grace to rise to the task at hand.
(A sermon that I gave at the local pan-Orthodox Mission Vespers on March 11th, 2018.)