"The Central Role of Missions in our Orthodox Faith"
The Central Role of Missions in our Orthodox Faith
Fr. Luke A. Veronis
“Mission will always remain the central ecclesiastical matter; an expression of the life and vitality of the church. Unthinkable as it is to have a church without liturgical life, it would be even more unthinkable to have a church without missionary life.” Thus states Archbishop Anastasios of Albania, the foremost Orthodox missiologist and missionary in the world today.
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 Israel to view the other nations as enemies. Instead, the Lord expected His chosen people to act as instruments in His hand to bless all the nations. Numerous other passages and stories throughout the Old Testament point clearly to a universal vision, but these will be left for another article.
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 Kingdom of God in a manner respecting the freedom of His listeners. He will love them if they accept His message, and He will love them if they reject His message. His love is unconditional. Isn’t this the ideal missionary?
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 St. Paul’s call to adopt “the mind of Christ.” Whenever we try to limit God’s unconditional love to a particular people, whether consciously or unconsciously, we need to ask ourselves if we truly have “the mind of Christ” within us!
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 Israel clearly changes. His desire for His followers to go forth to all nations was not a polite request - “If you have time, go.” NO! He reminded His disciples of His authority “in heaven and earth,” and with that authority He firmly ordered them with His last commandment, often called The Great Commission: “All authority in heaven and earth has been given to me. Go therefore, and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit, and teaching them to obey all that I have commanded you. And remember, I will be with you always, even to the end of the age.” (Mt 28:18-20)
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 Jerusalem, and in all Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth.” (Acts 1:8) No where does our Lord tell His disciples to focus only in one area, or complete a mission on the homefront.
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 Jerusalem, and in all Judea AND Samaria, AND to the ends of the earth.” Our call to offer a witness means starting in our local Church and city AND participating in the ministries and witness of our Metropolis and Archdiocese AND becoming partners with those going to the farthest regions of the world!
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 St. Paul emphasizes throughout these letters the universal imperative of the Gospel. He summarizes his message when we writes, “For everyone who calls on the name of the Lord will be saved. How, then, can they call on the one they have not believed in? And how can they believe in the one of whom they have not heard? And how can they hear without someone preaching to them? And how can anyone preach unless they are sent? As it is written, ‘How beautiful are the feet of those who bring good news!’” (Rom 10:13-15)
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. St. Seraphim of Sarov summarized this idea when he exclaimed, “Acquire inner peace and thousands around you will be saved.” Francis of Assisi put it another way: “Preach the gospel at all times, and if necessary use words.”
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 Georgia, St. Froumentios of Ethiopia, St. Patrick of Ireland, Sts. Cyril and Methodios among the Slavic peoples, St. Steven of Perm in the northern regions of Russia, St. Makarios Glukarov to the Altai Mountains of Siberia, St. Kosmas Aitolos among the peoples of northern Greece and Albania, St. Herman of Alaska, St. Innocent the Enlightener of America and Eastern Siberia, St. Nicholas of Japan and countless others, we can see priests, bishops, monks, laymen and lay women risking their lives, even offering their lives in martyrdom, in order to share the precious treasure of faith with those who have never heard.
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!
Fr. Luke and his family have served as missionaries in Albania for more than 10 years. Previous to that he served for one and a half years in Africa on short-term missions. Presently, he is an adjunct professor of missions at Holy Cross School of Theology and St. Vladimir’s Seminary, while pasturing the Sts. Constantine and Helen Greek Orthodox Church in Webster, MA.