Friday, 12 September 2014

The Mission of the Church

The mission of the Church. We all know that Christ sent the Apostles to preach to all nations, baptizing in the name of the Father, Son and Holy Spirit:
All authority in Heaven and on earth has been given to me. Going, 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 keep all that I have commanded you. And behold I am with you (plural) all the days up to the consummation of the Age. Amen. (Mat. 28, 18–20.)
Of course the history of Christianity is intimately connected to the missionary activity of the various Christian denominations. What we would like to reflect on, however, is the nature of this mission of the Church.
Let us suppose that the Church is inserted into a city in the modern West the population of which is in part de-churched and in part dispersed among the various Protestant, largely, churches but also the Roman Catholic church. What is the mission of the Orthodox Church?
To a large extent, the various jurisdictions of the Orthodox Church view their mission as a ministry to the members of their ‘ethnic group of origin’. If it’s the Greeks, then they worry about the Greeks; if it’s the Russians, they worry about the Russians. If you’re not part of the ‘ethnic group of origin’ then we’re not interested. And to a large extent the mission is seen in ethnic terms: the Church is seen as a bearer of ethnic identity, even ethnic political identity. The church can even be seen as the bearer of a nationalist political ideal. Of course there are two major exceptions: the Orthodox Church in America and the Church of Antioch both have a consciously missionary orientation, largely Protestant influenced.
The Roman Catholic church on the other hand largely views itself in universalistic, transnational terms—although it is certainly not above getting mixed up in national or nationalist politics. It largely sees its missionary work in terms of developing an educational and/or health system that will bring unchurched locals into contact with the Catholic church in a positive way. In this model of evangelization, the long view is taken: the culture is to be Catholicized by the interaction of locals with the Roman Catholic services provided: the children who attend the Catholic school grow up with, hopefully, a positive view of the Roman Catholic church so that while those children might not themselves convert, the Roman Catholic church establishes a presence in the local society and eventually begins to make converts.
So far we have said nothing new, although some people might dispute our characterization of one or another Christian group’s practices.
What we would like to reflect on here, however, is the substance of St Paul’s remark in 2 Corinthians 5, 17-21:
If one is in Christ he is a new creation. The ancient things have passed; behold all things have become new. All things are from God who has reconciled us to himself through Jesus Christ, giving us the ministry of reconciliation. So that God was in Christ reconciling the world to himself, not reckoning to them their sins and establishing in us the word of reconciliation. Therefore we speak on behalf of Christ, as interceding with God on your behalf. We beseech on behalf of Christ: be reconciled to God. For he made him who did not know sin to be sin on our behalf so that we might become the righteousness of God in him.
It is perhaps not accidental that this message is at the core of those Protestant denominations that preach a born-again experience. And it is also true that as we have occasionally remarked that this Protestant born-again Christianity can be quite authoritarian, doing psychological violence to its converts.
It seems to us that the ministry of reconciliation of the Orthodox Church, which includes both its mission ad extra and its mission ad intra, is one of love. And the key to this love is not a sentimental love—a love which passes away—but the love given by the Holy Spirit. How is this love given? First of all this love is encountered as the presence of the Holy Spirit in the person preaching the Gospel. In the Orthodox Church, the transforming effect of the staretz or Elder is well known and well attested. In the West St Seraphim of Sarov is perhaps the best-known such staretz, although Elder Paisios of more recent times was very well known for the transforming effect of his love on his interlocutor. Although such startsy or Elders may perform miracles, it is their love which captivates and transforms the sinner, a love which is not judgemental nor of the flesh—a love which Elder Paisios himself called a Gospel love. This Gospel love is clearly the operation of the Holy Spirit in the staretz or Elder.
Now how do we appropriate that love for ourselves? Through Baptism. As we have been taught by the Fathers, it is baptism which grants us the forgiveness of sins, cleanses our soul and puts into our soul the Holy Spirit so that we are transformed. It is Baptism which makes us a new creation. It is baptism which reconciles us to God. However, as we have been taught, while Baptism grants us the forgiveness of sins, the restoration of the image of God in us and the pledge of the Holy Spirit, it is up to us to put into practice the word of the Gospel that the Kingdom of God is taken by violence: after baptism we must make an effort to restore our likeness to God by an essentially ascetical endeavour. This is true for all Orthodox Christians, not only monastics.
Moreover, since we are human and fallible, there is the ministry of reconciliation after our baptism through repentance, tears and the priest.
Although most Christian denominations maintain the same structure of belief as outlined here (except among Protestants concerning personal ascetical endeavour after Baptism), there is a quite different ‘flavour’ among various Christian groups as regards how this structure is actualized. The Roman Catholic church has historically been very rationalistic and legalistic; the various Protestant groups can be very sentimental or authoritarian. Here we want to emphasize the role of spiritual love in the Orthodox Church. Since this love is an operation of the Holy Spirit, it is not emotional but spiritual. Moreover, in the Orthodox Church, the encounter with Truth is neither humanly rationalistic nor humanly emotional. It is the encounter of the person with the Holy Spirit within. It is the Holy Spirit within us which bears witness to the truth of Orthodoxy, not the rational arguments of the Roman Catholic nor the emotional or authoritarian fixations of the born-again Protestant. Although love can perhaps be over-emphasized—sometimes the sinner should be reminded of the Judgement—in a healthy conversion or repentance it is ultimately the warmth of spiritual love which converts the sinner to Christ. For Christ is calling the sinner not to an authoritarian, emotionally violent and conflicted life but to participation in the inner life of the Holy Trinity through the Holy Spirit. Ultimately God is a God of love. It is for love that we were created. Our reconciliation to God is a reconciliation of the sinner to the love of God, to the love of the Father, so that the reconciled sinner loves God in return. And this love is a love to the Ages. A little earlier in 2 Corinthians 5, St Paul writes:
For we know that if our earthly dwelling of the tent [i.e. body] is dissolved we have a building from God, an eternal dwelling in the Heavens not made with hands. And for that reason we sigh in this dwelling, greatly desiring to be clothed with our dwelling which is from Heaven; and if clothed then we will not be found naked. And we who are in the body sigh, weighed down since we do not wish to be unclothed but to be clothed, so that what is mortal be swallowed up by Life. God is he who works us to this very thing, he who has also given us the pledge of the Spirit. Therefore seeing that sojourning in the body we are absent from the Lord we always take courage. For we walk by faith not by sight. But we take courage and rather look forward to departing from the body to sojourn with the Lord. And so whether sojourning or departing we act with a sense of honour so as to be pleasing to him. For we must all appear before the judgement seat of Christ, each to obtain that which is appropriate to what he has done, whether good or bad.

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