by Hieromonk Damascene (Christensen)
Since it is the primary duty, and most basic skill, of the competent priest to preach the Gospel with excellence, we are republishing this excellent article in three parts. This is from a talk given at a conference sponsored by the Northern California Brotherhood of Orthodox Clergy and held at the Annunciation Greek Orthodox Church in Sacramento, California, October 21, 2006.
1. Why Preach The Gospel?
The theme of today’s conference, “Preaching the Gospel of Christ in the Modern World,” is relevant to everyone here, not only to those who are called to preach sermons from the ambo. Each of us is called to preach the Gospel, first of all by bearing witness to it through our lives, and secondly by making it available to others. This morning I will talk about why we should preach the Gospel, about the prerequisites for preaching the Gospel, and finally about how to bear witness to it in our lives.
The Gospel, of course, is the sum of the message of the Christian Faith, and especially the good news that Christ has saved mankind from the eternal consequences of sin, that He has overcome the central problem of the world — death, both bodily and spiritual — by means of His Incarnation, Death, and Resurrection.
In approaching the subject of preaching the Gospel, the first question that arises is: Why should we be preaching the Gospel of Christ in our modern world?
Why, indeed, when the Protestants seem to be doing it much better? They have evangelistic programs, crusades that fill stadiums, mega-churches, television channels, Christian bookstores, a Christian music industry, and all the money they could want. We Orthodox in America are small by comparison. Why can’t we just concentrate on our beautiful services and our social functions, and let the evangelicals preach to the unchurched?
The answer to this question is that the Protestants, and the Roman Catholics as well, do not preach the whole, complete, and unadulterated Gospel of Christ. Only the Orthodox Church can do that, because the Orthodox Church is the true Church that Christ founded, and that has continued up to today in a continuous, unbroken line of Holy Apostolic Tradition. This is the Church against which, as Christ promised, the gates of hell shall not prevail (cf. Matt. 16:18).
Right before His Crucifixion, Christ told His disciples that the Holy Spirit would come and lead them into all Truth. That promise was indeed fulfilled after Christ’s Resurrection. But it did not cease to be fulfilled after His Apostles reposed. Christ has continued to fulfill that promise through two millennia of upheaval and tribulation; He continues doing so even now, and He will continue until His Second Coming. During our Church’s history, heretical emperors, priests, bishops, and even patriarchs threatened to destroy the purity of the Orthodox Faith, but through the guidance of the Holy Spirit the Church was preserved in Truth, and the heresies were overcome.
The non-Orthodox Christian churches have preserved some of the Truth of the original Christian Faith. But whatever they have that is true — whether it be the Holy Scriptures, the dogma of the Holy Trinity, or the dogma of Christ’s Incarnation — they have received from the original, Apostolic Church, the Orthodox Church, whether they acknowledge this or not. But, again, they possess only some of the Truth, and the rest they have distorted because they are separated from the true Church that Christ founded. Only the Orthodox Church is the repository of the pristine Gospel and the undistorted image of Christ.
This, then, is why we Orthodox Christians are called to preach the Gospel of Christ. We have something to give that no one outside the Church can give. Since the Christian Faith is the true Faith, and the Orthodox Faith is the true form of that true Faith, we alone can give the fullness of Truth to the searching humanity of our days. It would be selfish of us to keep it to ourselves. Yes, we should care about our beautiful church services, which are the center of our life as the worshipping Body of Christ; and, yes, we should have our social functions, since we need to have fellowship with other members of Christ’s Body. But, together with this, we are called to share our Faith, to offer it to those who have not yet been given the great gift of being part of Christ’s true Church.
This is a tremendous responsibility, and it’s time the Orthodox Christians in this country stepped up to it. Of course, much has been done and is being done. Just in the last twenty-five years since I first discovered Orthodoxy, I’ve seen a tremendous growth in the Orthodox mission in this country. But we can do a lot more, and that’s what we’ll be looking at and discussing today.
Back in the early 1960s, when the co-founder of our St. Herman Brotherhood, Fr. Seraphim (then Eugene) Rose, was working in the brotherhood’s Orthodox bookstore in San Francisco, his ruling bishop, St. John of Shanghai and San Francisco, walked in, as he often did. Fr. Seraphim asked St. John a question he had been pondering: “Nearly all the peoples of the earth have had the Gospel preached to them. Does this mean that it’s the end of the world, as the Scriptures say?”
This is an awesome thing to contemplate. St. John, who in other instances demonstrated that he had the gift of prophecy, is telling us that we cannot leave it up to Protestants and Roman Catholics to enlighten the world with the Gospel. That task ultimately belongs to us Orthodox Christians. It’s not enough, for example, that three thousand Chinese are becoming Christian every day, according to the latest statistics. Yes, they are becoming Protestants and Roman Catholics, and that’s good as far as it goes, but they are not becoming Orthodox Christians. Ultimately, it will be up to us to preach the Gospel to them in the Orthodox context.
Fr. Seraphim once noted that,
“When Archbishop John first came to Paris from Shanghai [in the early 1950s], instead of giving a merely polite and formal greeting to his new flock in church the first time he saw them, he gave them real spiritual meat: The meaning of the Russian exile [he said] is to preach the Gospel over the whole earth, which must happen before the end of the world; and that means not just any Gospel, any kind of ‘Christianity,’ but Orthodoxy.”
What St. John said about the Russian exiles can be applied equally well to the diaspora of all the other Orthodox nationalities: Bulgarian, Georgian, Greek, Lebanese, Palestinian, Romanian, Serbian, Syrian, Ukrainian, etc.
Speaking of prophecy, here is one from a Greek saint of our times (not yet canonized): Elder Paisios of Mount Athos. Before his repose in 1994, he was asked by one of his spiritual sons:
“Elder, today there are so many people— billions who don’t know Christ and so few of them who do know Him. What will happen?”
Elder Paisios answered:
“Things will happen which will shake the nations. It will not be the Second Coming, but it will be a Divine intervention. People will be searching for someone to speak to about Christ. They will pull you by the hand: ‘Come here, sit down and tell me about Christ.’
We don’t have to look into the future for this. Already, even now, people are starving spiritually. How can we give them what they need?
Part Two can be read HERE.