Our Orthodox Faith and the Centrality of Missions
Fr. Luke A. Veronis
Missions does not simply represent a “nice” task of the Church, but it summarizes the essence of who we are as Orthodox Christians, and it embodies the very nature of the Church. Archbishop Anastasios emphasizes this in another way, “Missions is a part of the DNA of the Church’s genetic makeup."
The Church and missions through her witnessing and outreach are one. Missions acts not only as an extension of the work of Jesus Christ, but continues the universal vision and plan that God as Holy Trinity displayed from the beginning of time. All people of the world are children of God, created in His image and likeness. This makes all of us brothers and sisters with one another. We have a union and a responsibility for one another. As God affirmed to Cain, “Yes, we are our brother’s keeper.” These common roots unite us with one another throughout the world.
Scriptural Witness of Missions
We can understand this universal vision more clearly when we look at the “Great Commission of the Old Testament” in God’s call to Abraham. “Go from your country and your kindred and your father’s house to the land that I will show you. I will make of you a great nation, and I will bless you, and make your name great, so that you will be a blessing. I will bless those who bless you, and the one who curses you I will curse, and in you all the families of the earth shall be blessed.” (Gen 12:1-3)
We see God calling Abraham to leave his country, his family, and all that is familiar to him, and go to an unknown land. Sure, this is a radical calling, and yet from early in the Scriptures we see that following God demands a spirit of abandon, an openness to overcome reason and follow our Lord wherever He calls. The person who demands earthly security, safeguards, and assurance will never have the courage to be a faithful follower of God. Abraham understood that the greatest security comes from living in the will of God, from obeying His call in our lives, and going wherever He leads.
But for what purpose does God call Abraham? “Go… and I will make of you a great nation.” Such a promise holds a serious responsibility. Christ said, “To whom much is given, much is required.” This maxim hold no less truth in the Old Testament than in the New Testament. The Lord promises that Abraham will become a great nation, and will receive His blessing, SO THAT “you will be a blessing… and in you all the families of the earth shall be blessed.”
This great nation that begins with Abraham holds the grave responsibility of blessing all the families of the earth. God did not want
We see the most perfect Biblical example of the spirit of missions in the person of our Lord Jesus Christ Himself. Why did the Incarnation occur if not because of the love of God for all humanity. “For God so loved the world that he gave his only begotton Son, that whoever believes in him shall not perish but have eternal life. For God did not send his Son into the world to condemn the world, but to save the world through him.” (Jn 3:16-17)
God became man so that all people, not solely a particular race, could unite with Him. God’s unconditional love is precisely that – unconditional. No boundaries, limitations or differences can separate the passionate love of God for His children. “I bring you good news of great joy that will be for all people.” (Lk 2:10) Thus, the Incarnation is the “beginning of our salvation,” as the Dismissal Hymn of the Annunciation proclaims, but also the greatest example of missions. “As the Father has sent me, I am sending you.” (Jn 20:21; 17:18) In one sense, we can look at God the Father as the mission agency sending the perfect missionary, His Son, to witness His love for the entire world.
And Jesus Christ represents the ultimate missionary because He identifies completely with the people He goes to serve (Heb 4:15). He humbly serves the people He goes to save, constantly sacrificing for the other even to the point of death (Phil 2:6-11) He represents a life and ministry of unconditional love which proclaims the
Jesus Christ came for one purpose – to destroy death itself and open up the gates of paradise for all humanity. He invited everyone to follow Him and discover the path of union with God. His earthly ministry exemplified this universal and unconditional mission when He invited the worst of sinners –murderers, thieves, prostitutes, adulterers, tax-collectors, or heretics – to change their ways and follow Him. Sin created no obstacle too great for the love and passion of our Lord to overcome. Ethnicity also proved no hindrance to His message. Whether a “hated” Roman or an “unclean” Canaanite, Jesus offered His love, and allowed the other to choose freely whether to embrace Him or not.
This universal and all-embracing mindset is essential for us to understand
One fruit of our Lord’s Resurrection was the way He sent His disciples to proclaim and witness the Good News to all nations and peoples. Any pre-resurrectional limitation to the house of
Archbishop Anastasios has noted how we distort Christianity when we pick and choose which commands we want to follow, and which we prefer to ignore. For example, we cannot claim an authentic Christianity if we ignore the commandment “to love your enemies” because of its difficulty. We must strive to “love our enemies” even when it seems impossible, and believe that by the grace of the Lord, we can fulfill this command. In like manner, we can’t reject the commandment to “go forth to all nations” because it presents extreme complexities. We can surely enumerate many reasons why we shouldn’t go, but all of these cannot negate our Lord’s commandment “to go forth!”
Some in the Church even try to justify their disobedience to “go to the nations” by saying that we have to focus on the needs nearby. I have heard people mention to me that “Charity begins at home” as an excuse to ignore global missions. Well, the Lord dispels this way of thinking when He offers His final words to His disciples before His Ascension. “You will receive power when the Holy Spirit comes on you, and you will be my witnesses in
To the contrary, Christ empowers His disciples with the Holy Spirit and commands them to be witnesses locally, regionally, and globally, all at the same time. He does not say “either/or” nor “first/than.” He connects His command with the conjunction “and/and,” as “in
The Acts of the Apostles records both the struggle to break away from this parochial temptation, as well as the ultimate triumph in proclaiming the Gospel throughout the then-known world, both welcoming Greeks and barbarians, slaves and free, men and women. The entire book of Acts is a missionary record of the spread of the early Church. Acts begins with the two greatest feasts of the Orthodox Church – Pascha and Pentecost, both of which definitively imply a universal message: Christ’s destruction and victory over death for all, and the coming of the Holy Spirit to empower His followers to proclaim this victory to the entire world!
In half of this book, and through most of the remainder of the New Testament, we see how St. Paul travels among different peoples and then writes as a missionary to his newly founded missions churches, or to his disciples who themselves were missionaries. Again and again
Theological and Liturgical Witness of Missions
Along with Holy Scriptures, our theology, eccelesiology and liturgy also conclusively witness to the centrality of missions and this universal worldview. For example, the goal of the Christian life is theosis, which means deification or union with God. Well, if we truly unite with God, won’t we automatically have “the mind of Christ,” which is synonymous with missions and outreach? The two great commandments of our faith are to “love God” and to “love the other.” God’s divine love knows no bounds or limits. Our sincere love for God implies an authentic love for the other, wherever that other may be – even to the ends of the earth!
This is why 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.”
Our ecclesiology supports this missionary worldview as well. Every time we pray our Creed of Faith, we state, “I believe in one, holy, catholic and apostolic Church.” The catholicity of our Faith compels the Church to always have a worldwide vision. The Church denies her true nature when she doesn’t sufficiently express her universal dimension. Archbishop Anastasios says, “When a local church or parish is absorbed by its own concerns, spiritual withering results. To close and isolate oneself is to lose oneself. This is a spiritual law that is valid for the life of individuals, the community, and smaller or larger entities.” Faithful Orthodox must always understand the Church as a universal body throughout the entire world.
Confessing the “apostolicity” of the Church not only implies a continuity with apostolic teachings and traditions, but just as important it means maintaining and promoting apostolic zeal and fire. The word apostolic comes from the root Greek word “to send forth.” How can we claim to be the apostolic Church if we aren’t going forth with the Good News. Fr. Thomas Hopko, dean emeritus of St. Vladimir’s Seminary, says “If a parish has no 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 is not an Orthodox Christian Parish!” Fr. Georges Florovsky, one of the greatest theologians of last century, unequivocally put it this way, “The Church is a missionary body indeed, and its mission field is the whole world .”
Another aspect of our Church life that supports the role of missions is our liturgical life and the Eucharist itself. Alexander Schmemann rightly points out, “The Eucharist is always the end, the sacrament of the parousia, and yet it is always the beginning, the starting point; now the mission begins… The Eucharist, transforming “the Church into what it is” – transforms it into mission.”
In other words, the Eucharist is the source of life for the Church and her mission. The Church, through the Eucharist, participates in the death and resurrection of Christ, and it is through this experience that her members unite with our Lord Jesus and receive the nourishment needed to strengthen them and guide them to become witnesses to all people. The power of the Eucharist transforms missions into a doxological movement in which all creation is called to participate!
Historical Witness of Missions
The lives of the saints have always acted as role models for the Church’s faithful to follow. These holy men and women understood the great privilege and responsibility to share the Good News entrusted to them. First, they strove to proclaim the Gospel through the sanctity of their lives.
Certain missionary saints throughout history have especially offered examples of consciously leaving their comfort zones in missionary lands. The Apostle Paul may be the greatest model. Although a Jew, he felt compelled to break the parochial boundaries of the early Church and proclaim the Good News to the nations. He faced immense misunderstanding and persecution from Christians within the Church, but he felt compelled to open the Church to all people. “Necessity is laid upon me and woe to me if I do not proclaim the good news.” He even reveals to what lengths he will go: “I have made myself a slave to all, so that I might win as many as possible… I have become all things to all people, that I might by all means save some. I do it for the sake of the Gospel.” (1 Cor 9:16,19,22-23)
We can see plenty of examples in every generation risking much to preach the Good News to all nations. Whether St. Gregory the Illuminator of Armenia, St. Nina of
These saints realized that no greater privilege can one have than to share God’s love to the world around them! The “pearl of great price” which God wants all His creation to have, compels all faithful believers to “go forth” when they realize that 26% of the world today, more than 1.6 billion people, have never even had the opportunity to hear about the Christian Faith.
In the end, all Christians must understand that missions is not simply a part of our Orthodox identity, but is of the Church’s essence, it is who we are. We can never separate missions into a “nice activity” or one person’s specific calling. Missions is as central to our Church’s nature and self understanding as worship itself! The witness of Holy Scripture, our Theology, our Ecclesiology, as well as our history all point to this imperative of missions. May the day come when everyone in the Church realizes that the mission movement of today isn’t striving for some people to become missions minded, but instead desires for all Christians to be authentically Christ-centered, which automatically implies possessing a missions mind and participating in our apostolic privilege and responsibility!