The Scriptural Call to Evangelize

Fr. Luke A. Veronis

One of the greatest dangers in our churches today is parochialism. Parochialism comes in many forms. Orthodox churches are often criticized as being parochial from an ethnic point of view. It is true that many of our churches are simply ethnic enclaves, and we need to be criticized for that. But parochialism can also come in the form of a limited understanding of evangelism. Parochialism means limiting our focus to ourselves or our own interests. It is a deadly heresy.

Orthodox Christianity is living in union with God through our worship and life. And as we read in the Scriptures, union with God also means union with our neighbor. Who are our neighbors? Our neighbors are both the people in our own city and the people on the other side of the globe who follow another religion. As we grow closer to God, we must be growing closer to all our neighbors.

Fr. Thomas Hopko has written, “If a parish does not have an awareness and consciousness of being sent by God to speak His words, to do His work and to accomplish His will in this world, then it cannot be called an authentic Orthodox parish.” Fr. Alexander Schmemann talks about the way baptism and union with Christ should shape our worldview and begin our lifelong transformation in Christ. When we’re united to Christ, we become united to everyone around us throughout the world, in this global village in which we live.

Fr. Georges Florovsky says, “The Church is a missionary body indeed, and its missionary field is the entire world.” Archbishop Anastasios of Albania has often said, “As unthinkable as it is to have a church without liturgical life, how can we imagine being faithful Orthodox with absolutely no interest in a missionary life, a missionary outreach? . . . Indifference to missions is unthinkable, incompatible with an authentic Orthodox life. . . . A church without missions is a contradiction in terms. If we refuse it we don’t simply omit a duty, we deny our very nature, who we are as followers of Christ.”

Since my first trip to Africa in 1987, I’ve spoken at a number of churches about evangelism. When I first started talking about my experiences with African missions, I would actually meet people who would ask, “Wait a minute, why are you bringing this Protestant spirit into the Orthodox Church?” They were ignorant of our great missionary tradition.

Things have changed, but I still run into this indifference to evangelism. When I was a missionary back in 2003, I took a sabbatical and lived on campus at Holy Cross for six months, teaching classes. One day the president of Holy Cross—a big supporter of missions—told me of a problem. “Fr. Luke,” he said, “someone [NOT a professor] came up to me yesterday and said they weren’t too happy you were living on campus. They thought it was dangerous. I asked them why. They said it was dangerous because you’re around the students a lot, and might be influencing some of our best students to actually become missionaries and leave America.”

That attitude is still very prevalent in our Orthodox churches. This is why we have to show people that missions, evangelism, and outreach are a fundamental part of who we are. One of the ways we can do this is by going through the Scriptures from beginning to end and seeing God’s vision for evangelism.

In the Beginning

I often ask people, “What’s the first reference to missions in the Bible?” They’ll answer, “the Great Commission”; or “Jesus sending the disciples”; or “St. Paul’s travels.” Rarely do they think of the Old Testament. But if we want to look at the roots of missions, we have to begin in Genesis, at the very beginning.

In Genesis 1:27, we read that God created man and woman—and thus all people—in His image. This is very basic, but something of which we need to remind ourselves again and again: All people everywhere are children of God. Whether today they’re Hindu or Moslem, Buddhist or atheist, African or European, Chinese or Arab, they are children of God, and we’re their brothers and sisters. God’s global vision begins in the beginning. He wants us to understand that we’re all part of one family. He is the God of everyone, and we’re all His children.

Next comes what I think of as the Great Commission of the Old Testament—God’s call to Abraham. God called Abraham and said to him:

“Get out of your country, from your family and from your father's house, to a land that I will show you. I will make you a great nation; I will bless you and make your name great; and you shall be a blessing. I will bless those who bless you, and I will curse him who curses you; and in you all the families of the earth shall be blessed." (Genesis 12:1–3)

Why is God blessing Abraham? Not so that the Israelites can always be proud of being the chosen people. They are chosen for a purpose. They are chosen so that they will become a blessing to others—so that all the families of the earth will be blessed through them.

As we read through the Old Testament, we find that Israel never forgot its blessing. They always remembered that they were the chosen people. But again and again throughout history, they forgot their responsibility. Too often the people of Israel thought, “We are chosen, we are better than everyone else, so to hell with all the nations.” They forgot that God had said to them originally, “You are blessed, you are chosen, now go out and be a blessing to others.” In Genesis, we also find many passages where God calls the Israelites a “nation of priests.” Priests are not priests unto themselves. Priests are there to serve the people—and Israel is called to serve the nations.

This universal vision is also found throughout the Psalms. To take just one example, we can look at the beginning of Psalm 67. The first verse we recite every evening in our Compline service: “May God be gracious unto us and bless us, may His face shine upon us and have mercy on us.” Unfortunately, the service does not include verse 2: “That Your way may be known on earth, / Your salvation among all nations.” Once again we see the blessing, and following the blessing comes the responsibility to share that blessing with others.

This is something we all need to take to heart. We as Orthodox know that we’ve been blessed with an incredible treasure—the true faith. But with that blessing comes a responsibility.

The Prophets

In the prophetic books, we see the prophets waking up Israel, reminding them of this vision. One of my favorite passages in the Old Testament is Isaiah’s vision of the throne of God (Isaiah 6). He’s standing before the throne, feeling unworthy, until God sends one of the cherubim to take a piece of coal and cleanse his lips. After God blesses Isaiah by cleansing him, He tests him. He says, “Whom shall I send, and who will go for Us?” Will Isaiah keep that blessing for himself, or will he understand that the purpose of that blessing is to serve God by sharing it with others? Isaiah responds, “Here am I! Send me.” He then becomes the mouthpiece of God, reminding the people of their responsibility. As the foremost prophet of the Messiah, Isaiah brings his message not to Israel alone, but to all mankind.

One of the most famous missionary prophets most of us learned about in our childhood is Jonah. Jonah is a great example of an unwilling missionary—and a parochial, ethnocentric missionary at that. God gives Jonah a great and difficult calling. He says, “Jonah, leave where you are and go to Nineveh, the capital of the Assyrian Empire, the enemies.” God wants Jonah to go preach in the capital of the enemies of the Jews and tell them to repent. But Jonah’s attitude is, “I don’t want them to repent. I hope God does destroy them, because they’re the enemy. I don’t care about them.”

So he tries to run away from God. We all know the story. He runs away, gets on the boat, is thrown over, and is swallowed up. Many think the big miracle of Jonah is that a whale swallows him up and spits him out after three days, and then Jonah repents, listens to the call of God, and finally goes to Nineveh. But the real miracle in the story of Jonah is that he goes to the city of Nineveh for forty days, preaches to 100,000 people, and by the end of that time these enemy people actually listen to the Jewish prophet. From the king down to the smallest servant, they all begin to repent, to sit in ashes and sackcloth, turning their eyes to God.

Here was the greatest example of what God wanted Israel to do. He wanted them to be a light to the nations. And the nations, in this story, responded positively. But what does Jonah do? We see that even the saints and the prophets, the instruments of God, can still be quite human, parochial, and ethnocentric. When Jonah sees Nineveh repenting, he sits outside the city gates and pouts. God tries to teach him a lesson by raising up a plant to shade him as Jonah sits under the hot sun. Jonah takes delight in the plant for one day, and then God sends a worm to destroy it. Jonah mourns for this one plant. And God says, “Jonah, you care about a plant that you neither planted nor nourished, that’s gone in one day, yet you don’t care about the 100,000 people who are My children?” Here is the essence of parochialism, of limiting God’s vision for all people.

The Greatest Missionary

The greatest image of God’s universal vision in the New Testament is Christ Himself. The greatest mission agency ever was God the Father sending His Son, the perfect missionary. The Father sent the Son to come and live at the level of the people, emptying Himself completely. Why? To show people how much God loved them. And then to destroy death itself, the great evil that was holding them in captivity, freeing them from bondage.

Time and again throughout His life, we see how Jesus reached out to the sinners, to the prostitutes, to the tax collectors, to the foreigners like the Canaanite woman and the Roman centurion. He never limited His vision, but instead reached out in love to all people.

As God the Father sent His Son, Jesus sent His disciples: “As the Father has sent Me, I also send you” (John 20:21). Our Lord’s message to us here is that we are called to imitate Him, to follow His example—to go out as He went out, leaving our comfortable settings. Abraham had to leave everything he was familiar with and go to a foreign land. But he followed out of faith. Likewise, Christ had to leave His place with the Father and empty Himself here among us.

And yet somehow, in our modern Christian mentality, we forget that living a comfortable, easy, and prosperous life is contrary to everything we are taught in the Gospel. The Gospel is calling us to a radical commitment, and anyone who wants to do something in evangelism and missions—whether it’s locally, nationally, or globally—must be ready to sacrifice, to empty themselves as Christ did. The Gospel leaves no other path open for us, except the one that leaves behind all that we find comfortable in order to share with our neighbors the love of God.

In this truth, we find the only real reason to be an evangelist. The motivating factor of evangelism and missions isn’t our desire to save souls. Only God saves souls. Our motivating factor needs to be solely the love of God. If we are filled with that love, that passionate love that God has for us, the only thing we can do is go out beyond our comfort zone and share the joy of Christ with others—wherever they may be.

Throughout the Gospels, we find proclamations of the joy of God’s love and God’s desire for that joy to be shared with all mankind. We see it even in the very beginning, in the words of the angels at Christ’s birth: “I bring you good tidings of great joy which will be to all people” (Luke 2:10). The Gospel is for all. We see this again in the prayer of St. Simeon, as he picks up the forty-day-old Jesus: “Lord, now let Your servant depart in peace, for my eyes have seen the salvation You have prepared for all people, a light of revelation to the nations.”

The Great Commission

The Gospel’s proclamation of God’s catholic vision culminates with Christ’s Great Commission: “All authority has been given to Me in heaven and on earth. Go therefore and make disciples of all the nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, teaching them to observe all things that I have commanded you; and lo, I am with you always, even to the end of the age” (Matthew 28:18–20).

Archbishop Anastasios says the Great Commission is like a chain with three links. Too often we Orthodox—like many Protestants—pick and choose the verses we like and ignore those we don’t. In this passage, we all like the final link: “and lo, I am with you always, even to the end of the age.” But that verse is linked with the verses before it. When is Christ going to be with us always? When we go and make disciples of all nations. When we realize that He has all authority in heaven and on earth, and is commanding us to go out and reach others. We can’t pick and choose. We have to take Christ’s Commission as a whole and strive to fulfill our responsibility.

This responsibility can be overwhelming until we open ourselves to the movement of the Holy Spirit and realize that it is He who will do the work through us. Christ reminded His disciples of this right before He ascended into heaven—that they would receive power when the Holy Spirit came upon them, and they would be His witnesses in Jerusalem and in Judea and in Samaria and to the ends of the world (Acts 1:8).

I can imagine the twelve disciples getting this commandment to go to all nations. They were afraid to go out into the streets, let alone go to all nations! And yet when the Holy Spirit does come upon them, they realize they are to witness to Jerusalem and to Judea and to the enemy nation Samaria and to the ends of the earth. Not one or the other—not even one after the other, but all as one, as a simultaneous witness.

Breaking the Boundaries

We today must manifest this simultaneous witness. Each of our churches needs to have line items in its budget for local outreach, for national outreach, and for global outreach. This was one of the first things I did as I began serving at my current church. The response was incredulous—“We can’t even pay our bills, and you’re worried about global missions?!” One of my parish council members even said to me, “Father, don’t you know the old saying ‘charity begins at home’? We have to take care of our own needs first.” And I said to him, “Don’t you understand what it means to be the Church? It means that we are reaching out everywhere simultaneously.”

Yes, we need to take care of some local needs ourselves. But if we are to be the Body of Christ, we also need to be reaching out to others outside ourselves, supporting our diocesan and archdiocesan ministries, and reaching out globally to the world around us, following in prayer God’s guidance for our community. St. John Chrysostom preached, “I don’t believe in the salvation of anyone who is not concerned with the salvation of the other.” He also critiqued the Church of his day by stating, “There are two types of Christian leaders: those who say ‘my parish is my universe’ and others who say ‘the universe is my parish.’” Obviously, this great Church Father held the latter view. He preached elsewhere, “The leader of the Church ought to care not only for the church that has been entrusted to him by the Spirit, but also for the entire Church existing throughout the world.”

Maybe we start small, but we dream big. And who knows how the Holy Spirit will baptize this effort over the years that follow? The Book of Acts makes this abundantly clear. Pentecost and the coming of the Holy Spirit empower the disciples to lose their fears, to dream great dreams and start reaching out. Would the disciples have dared to dream at that first Pentecost that one day they would be preaching the Gospel in Rome itself, and would eventually conquer the Roman Empire? And yet they began by reaching beyond their boundaries, beyond their known horizons, and that’s exactly what happened.

Pentecost is a great example not only of the power of the Holy Spirit guiding and inspiring, but also of God’s respect for all languages and all people. This is something fundamental to our Orthodox theology, even though we often fall into linguistic heresies and idolize Greek, 

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