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|Fr. Theodore G. Stylianopoulos|
Gospel, spirituality and renewal in orthodoxy
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Jesus began His ministry with the announcement of the good news of God’s kingdom, saying: “The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God is at hand; repent, and believe in the Gospel” (Mk 1:14-15). A formidable challenge that Jesus faced was how to break through “a wall of casual familiarity and complacency” in order to stir people’s heart and minds, and thus convey His message in a personal and living way. He lived among a religious people with a long tradition of worship and sacrifice, a people deeply aware of a rich heritage centered on the Mosaic Law and the Prophets, a people familiar with religious language and proud of the God-given privileged status among all the nations of the earth. The problem was that, as far as Jesus could see, it did not make much difference in their daily lives. It was as if the religious forms and ceremonies, the institution of religion, had taken the place of the living God. Jesus’ answer was to confront them with the presence and power of God. He assured them that He “did not come to abolish but to fulfill the Law and the Prophets” (Mt 5:17). His own focus was on the immediacy of God’s presence as the source of renewal of human hearts and the inherited religion. That is what He meant by “kingdom of God” which He himself made real through His presence, deeds and words.
The Orthodox preacher and teacher today confronts a similar reality in the parish. Orthodox Christians have a general familiarity with the form and language of the liturgical services. They have listened to the Bible, and particularly the Psalms recited many times. They have heard the frequent doxologies to the Holy Trinity and have chanted the triple Kyrie Eleisons. Parishioners know that Christ is God and Savior according to the Creed. He is the Leader of the Church, whose lordship is symbolized by the Pantokrator icon in the dome of our churches. They are aware and proud of the long and rich traditions of the Orthodox Church. But somehow the spiritual beauty and power of the banquet set before them do not penetrate very deeply into their hearts and minds. For the majority, religious life is a familiar routine partaken selectively, with little effect on daily life, while the burden of individual cares and the pull of modern culture seem overwhelming.
The most timely and effective answer to this reality of religious familiarity and complacency is internal mission by means of evangelization — preaching and teaching the Gospel. The following basic elements or aspects of preaching and teaching may serve as examples of how evangelization can be conducted in the parish in order to spark an evangelical spirit and nurture a broader evangelical ethos embracing the whole life of the community.
The first and most important element is focus on the central message of salvation — the conviction that the Church has a saving message to proclaim, a kerygma, a heralding of good news. This message derives from its Holy Scriptures, its worship and theology, and the depths of its historical experience of God. Jesus began with the heralding of God’s kingdom as a present reality. The Apostles began with the announcement that Jesus Himself was the agent of the kingdom, the risen Lord and Savior, the Victor over death and corruption, the Giver of light and life (Acts 2:22-36). The Church has the same apostolic message to proclaim about Christ and the kingdom today — a message of truth and grace, of love and forgiveness, of healing and reconciliation, of hope and joy — which must resound within the parish and beam out to the world as from a radio station never going off the air. To be agents of evangelization, bishops, priests, teachers, and other parish leaders must have first embraced the good news of Christ and the kingdom for themselves in word and deed. They must see themselves as heralds proclaiming the message with the conviction that it is ultimately dependent not on their wisdom and skill but on God’s authority and power. It is a message that comes from God, it announces the work of God in Christ, it tells about God’s blessings and demands, and it leads to God.
What must be emphasized in a particular way is that the evangelical quality of preaching and teaching arises from the conviction that the Gospel mediates God’s presence and power here and now. The Gospel is not simply an abstract religious truth or an account of an important event in the past, but an announcement which carries with it the power of the risen Christ and the active presence of the Holy Spirit. When Saint Paul wrote to the Romans that “the Gospel is the power of God for everyone who believes” (Rom. 1:17), he meant it for the ongoing present. Day by day as he conducted his ministry the great Apostle was aflame with the evangelical spirit by which, as in the case of Jesus, he could announce the transformative grace of God breaking into people’s lives: “Behold, now is the acceptable time; behold, now is the day of salvation” (2 Cor. 6:2)! Orthodox preachers and teachers must be convinced of the Gospel’s spiritual power and convey the confidence that the faithful announcement of the good news ushers the same blessings today as in the days of the first Christians. When the name of Christ is mentioned and praised, when His gracious work of love and forgiveness is proclaimed and taught in various ways, when His offer of new life and joy is celebrated, when His mercy and forgiveness are received, the same gifts that are announced become realities in the present. In other words, evangelical preaching and teaching is a spiritual event; it is not merely the transmission of theological information or elucidation of it, but the imparting here and now of the life of new creation, an ephiphany of God’s grace transforming simultaneously the lives of preachers and listeners.
In practical terms, preachers and teachers do not have to be biblical scholars or great theologians, as if great learning would justify or prove the validity of the gospel. Such a mentality is counter-productive because it does not perceive, nor therefore allow, the living God do His work through the faithful proclamation of the good news. They do not have to be eloquent speakers, although they must be willing to put serious effort behind their work. Nor do they have to raise their voices to high decibels, or thump on the pulpit, in order to add value or potency to the message. But they must be faithful to the message and receptive of God’s grace. They must love Christ, love the Scriptures, love the congregation, love to proclaim the good news, and seek to connect the Gospel with every aspect of the parish.
Is there a meeting of the Parish Council or the Ladies Society tonight? Is there a pastoral visitation at a home or in the hospital tomorrow? Is there a confession to be heard or a counseling meeting scheduled the next day? Is there a meeting with the youth or an adult recreational group on Saturday? Do not lose an opportunity to recite with conviction a carefully chosen passage from Scripture, presenting it as good news — affirming, rephrasing, celebrating, and applying the passage to present circumstances. Let the whole range of the imagery and language of the Gospel — which is the word of God, the word of the Cross, the heralding of the new creation, the announcement of grace, God’s gift of love and forgiveness — resound again and again in the life of the parish. Talk about Christ’s encounter with the Zacchaeus, or the blind man, or the Samaritan woman, or the thief on the Cross as encounters which bear good news for today’s listeners. In many and various ways, not only in worship, but also in meetings, educational sessions, recreational events, seek this one thing: to bring God into the lives of people and the people into the presence of God. By unceasing focus on the message, as well as by loving pastoral nurture, raise people’s awareness that we are God’s co-workers and witnesses, that we are doing God’s work, and that we are doing it with God’s guidance and power. And let God do the rest. The result will be an awakening of the evangelical spirit, a Christ-centeredness, and a growing evangelical ethos in the parish.
A second important element in evangelization is an emphasis on the good news as a gift. The Gospel is that “God so loved the world that He gave His only Son, that whoever believes in Him should not perish but have eternal life” (Jn 3:16). When Jesus met the Samaritan woman, He said to her: “If you knew the gift of God, and who it is that is saying to you, ‘Give me a drink,’ you would have asked Him, and he would have given you living water” (Jn 4:10). In the Epistle to the Romans, Saint Paul asks: “He who did not spare His own Son but gave Him up for us all, will He not also give us all things with Him” (Rom. 9:32)? And again in Ephesians: “For by grace you have been saved through faith; and this is not you own doing, it is the gift of God” (Eph. 2:8). At the most sacred moment of the Divine Liturgy, when the priests offers the Eucharistic Gifts, he chants: “We offer to You these gifts from Your own gifts in all and for all.” Orthodox theology teaches that Christ, the Gospel, the Church, the Holy Spirit, our families, our children, the life of each human being, all are gifts of God.
And yet the popular perception of Christian life and the Church itself is not in the perspective of a gift but that of an obligation. We often hear about fulfilling our religious duties and meeting our parish obligations. Christian life is often seen in moralistic categories. The prevailing view is that, to gain salvation and somehow obtain a ticket to heaven, one must accomplish so many good works and fulfill so many religious obligations, although these may be neither enjoyable nor very inspiring. Not infrequently and with all good intentions, priests and parish leaders reinforce this view of “obligatory Christianity” by harping on parishioners to come to Church more often, to give more of their time and money, and to be far better Christians than they are with little or no attention to the very essence of Christianity is as a gift, above all the personal gift of Christ Himself through whom we share the life of God the Father in the power of the Holy Spirit.
To be sure, the Gospel carries both gifts and tasks. It entails both blessings and demands. We need but to remember Christ’s words about the straight and narrow; and to review with our mind’s eye the Sermon on the Mount. The way of Christ is the way of the Cross. But he Gospel as gift comes first. It forms the foundation from which we seek to fulfill our Christian duties. Before Christ delivered the demands of the Sermon on the Mount, He began with the Beatitudes: “Blessed are the humble... blessed are the meek... blessed are the merciful... blessed are the pure in heart... blessed are the peacemakers” (Mt. 5:3-9). This blessing was a present blessing as well. It was not intended only for the afterlife, but also for the daily lives of those who heard and welcome His message of the kingdom. By receiving the message, they were already blessed and were being transformed! Indeed, unless we first receive and are transformed by the gift and power of the kingdom, unless we are truly blessed by God’s grace, the fulfillment of the kingdom’s righteousness would be an exercise in futility. The gifts and graces of God always come first.
Preaching and teaching must reverse popular notions of “obligation Christianity” and develop an awareness of Christian life as a gift, a privilege, a joy. Preachers must avoid dwelling on what have been called “try-harder sermons,” thus crushing the conscience of worshipers who are already burdened with a myriad personal, family and work obligations. The One who said, “take up your cross and follow me” (Mt. 16:24), first said: “Come to me and I will give you rest (Mt. 11:28). The blessings of Christ, His love and mercy, His forgiveness and healing, His strength and comfort, must receive primary attention because His demands can only be accomplished on the basis of His blessings. An essential aspect of evangelization is proclaiming the good news as a gift, creating a sense of gratitude and appreciation for God’s blessings, and thus inspiring and empowering Christians to live a life worthy of the Gospel.
A third element of evangelization is leading people to a clear response to the Gospel. The very nature of the Gospel as a gift requires a response. The ministry of Jesus is marked by such questions as: “Do you believe?” “Do you want to be well?” “Do you want to enter into life?” Jesus taught that we must ask in order to receive and we must actively seek in order to find (Mt. 7:7-11). Christ came to the world and shed His precious blood on the Cross not merely to be observed and admired, but to be received and acknowledged as Redeemer and Lord.
The wall of the routine of the parish can gradually be broken by drawing attention to this element of response through appropriate, loving words. The response is the essence of the personal act of faith on the basis of free will. The response is not simply to this program or to that worship service, but to Christ Himself and to life with Him. Responding is like turning on the lights spiritually. Not all would want to turn on the switch of personal Christian commitment, but all should at least hear and know that that marks the serious beginning of the life in Christ.
While we do not have altar calls in the Orthodox Church, our worship services, the readings from the Bible, as well as the teachings and examples of the Saints, offer numerous lessons and opportunities to underscore the necessity of response to the Gospel — not only once but again and again. The response is essentially none other than that of faith, repentance, and obedience as an expression of authentic Christian life. Faith is the affirmation that Christ is true and reliable, both deserving and requiring our commitment. Repentance, a consequence of faith, is less a regret for past sins and more a matter of a new orientation, a changed world view, and a new way of life based on the Gospel. Obedience is primarily obedience to Christ Himself evidenced by a stable Christian life in service to Him and our neighbor. When the Gospel is preached and taught as both inviting and requiring a response, its power is released in the hearts of listeners by the grace of the Holy Spirit. It becomes evident in a sense of conversion and renewal in the hearts of individual believers. When the response reaches a certain critical mass, the atmosphere and character of the parish itself takes on an evangelical spirit and ethos.
A fourth element in evangelization is attention to the process of spiritual growth by means of prayer and holiness of conduct. The Gospel looks to create a sense of permanent relationship, an abiding sense of communion with Christ, the risen and living Lord, who is constantly with us and guide us in our daily walk. In the Gospel of John, Christ compares His relationship with His followers to that of a vine and its branches: “I am the vine, you are the branches. Whoever abides in me, and I in him, he it is who bears much fruit” (Jn 15:4-5). Jesus taught the disciples not only to abide in His love and in His word, but truly in Him by means of a mutual indwelling, a mystical union: “If anyone loves me, he will keep my word, and my Father will love him, and we will come to him and make our home with him” (Jn 14:23). The same sense of mystical union with Christ is found in Saint Paul who wrote: “For me to live is Christ” (Phil. 1:21). And again: “I have been crucified with Christ; it is no longer I who live, but Christ who lives in me; and the life I now live in the flesh I live by faith in the Son of God, who loved me and gave Himself for me” (Gal. 2:20). This consciousness of personal connection and communion with Christ can arise only from a disciplined life of prayer and a sense of Christian integrity in all our daily affairs. The deepest aspects of Orthodox spirituality, theology and worship — the whole understanding of salvation as participation in the life of God (theosis) — are anchored on this evangelical teaching of the mystical union with Christ, the source of the greatest spiritual power and renewal in the parish.
Such biblical passages and spiritual principles must be attended to and be taught to our people, especially the principle of Christ-centeredness. The treasure is not tapped if preaching and teaching concentrate on explaining Christian virtues in the abstract and giving practical advice without connecting the discourse specifically with Christ. Often one hears valuable sermons on love, humility, sacrifice, forgiveness, and generosity in which the name of Christ is hardly mentioned. Little is heard about Christ Himself — His own love, humility, sacrifice, forgiveness, and generosity as exemplified in His ministry. And yet it is an easy matter to lift up an event or teaching from the Gospels expressing these qualities. In fact it makes the task of preaching more concrete, clear and effective. In similar fashion, teaching sessions in the classroom or church hall offer valuable instruction on fasting, icons, the lives of Saints, traditional customs, and important events in Church history. The opportunity need not be lost to connect these treasures with Christ, to remind participants of the centrality of Christ, and to celebrate the gift of His holy presence in our midst. Evangelical preaching and teaching, while affirming all the treasures of the Orthodox tradition, seeks to bring Christ into the center of things where He truly belongs and thus to create the conscious awareness that the Christ of the Pantokrator icon in the dome of our sanctuaries is truly the Lord of the parish and the Lord of our personal lives as well.
A final element in evangelization is witness. Jesus used the metaphors of salt and light to describe the disciples’s role of witness and mission in the world. When Christ dwells in the hearts of believers, when the local parish is Christ-centered in its mindset and activities, then all who bear the name Christian will spontaneously function as salt and light wherever they may be in the world. In the early chapters of 2 Corinthians, Saint Paul uses other striking imagery to describe his missionary work which he connects with the proclamation of the Gospel, as well as the light of the new creation that the Gospel imparts to receptive hearts. Saint Paul speaks of his apostolic ministry as the sharing of “the fragrance of the knowledge of God” and “the aroma of Christ to God” (2 Cor. 2:14-15). This aromatic fragrance of Christian witness, according to Saint Paul, is not some external additive but an intrinsic quality arising out of “the light of the gospel of the glory of Christ” shining in the hearts of those who gladly hear and receive the good news. The Apostle uses the imagery of the act of creation to describe the mystery of how God Himself lights up the light of His grace by means of the Gospel: “For what we preach is not ourselves but Jesus Christ as Lord, with ourselves as your servants for Jesus’ sake. For it is the God who said, ‘Let light shine out of darkness,’ who has shone in our hearts to give the light of the knowledge of the glory of God in the face of Christ” (2 Cor. 4:5-6). Saint Paul goes on to say that this act of creation in the soul, which is the source of witness and mission, is also “the treasure in earthen vessels,” the transcendent power of God in us which upholds us in times of suffering so that, afflicted we are not crushed, perplexed we are not driven to despair, struck down we are not destroyed, so that the life of Jesus may be manifest in our mortal humanity (2 Cor. 4:7-10).
Evangelization, the preaching of the Gospel, is not the only ministry in the Church. There is also worship, catechesis, pastoral guidance, philanthropy, and mission. However, all ministries of the Church, to function properly and in full power, must be penetrated with an evangelical spirit — the love of Christ, the zeal to proclaim the good news, the joy to see people coming to Christ and growing in Christ, the commitment to pray and work for the cause of the kingdom and its righteousness. The evangelical spirit is none other than the burning faith that the risen Christ is His great love and mercy is in our midst doing His gracious work in us and through us. In this perspective of living faith, all believers have the possibility of becoming the “aroma of Christ,” “the fragrance of the knowledge of God,” wherever God has placed us. When a sufficient number of believers shine with the light of Christ, then the local parish itself, by the grace of God, becomes a burning bush of God’s presence for all to see, rejoice, and respond.