Casting the Net
by Fr. Chrysostom MacDonnell
Reflections on the Miraculous Catch of Fish and the idea of Orthodox Mission
(St. Luke 5)
The Church by her very existence is evangelistic – she exists not only to bring her members closer and closer to Christ but also, to pass on the mystery of Christ to others. The Great Commission [Matt.28:16-20], read in the Orthodox Church at every Baptism and every eleventh week at Sunday Matins, is quite unambiguous: Christ, the God-Man, risen from the dead, has received from the Father all authority in heaven and on earth and with that authority, commands his followers to make disciples not only in all nations but of all nations. Christianity is unequivocally a missionary religion and there is no place in it for the novel secularist idea that all religions are of equal value (meaning, equally valueless) and none should claim special status over any other. With polite apologies to any who may be of such acute sensibilities in the realm of political rectitude we, nevertheless, proclaim and assert and affirm that Christianity and, more especially the Orthodox expression of it, to be the only faith that can save men’s souls and is the final cataphatic revelation of God in the world.
For example, though one might admire the developments of Arabic civilisation from the eighth century AD to its decline (though largely built on the achievements of ancient Greek and Roman science), yet we reject Islam as a revelation of God. If it were such, what business do we have in being Christian? The same must hold true for any later, so-called, revelations: Sikhism, Mormonism, Jehovah’s Witnesses and Baha’ism. The siren voices, even among believers in the heterodox Christian confessions that would have us give equal value to all cultures and religions, have conveniently ignored the contradictions in their own position – how can one obey the Great Commission if those who know not Christ have found their own ‘true faith’. Of course, the secularists and social liberals who manage the government of our own country are anxious to foster community cohesion (such is the current phrase) knowing as they do, religion’s ability to stir up conflict. This is laudable enough as far as it goes but I suspect it is, itself, rooted in the decline of the indigenous religious traditions among the vast majority of the population. This decline has left most people uncertain as to how one deals with any religion in the public sphere, whether Christian or whether imported through immigration from the Commonwealth. In fact, most of the anxiety is reserved for Islam, not only due to the political tragedies of modern times but also for other, more historical and cultural reasons. The point is, as Orthodox Christians we cannot just swim with this tide. To accept the spirit of the age and compromise our obedience to the Great Commission would fundamentally undermine not only our understanding of what Christianity is but our very reason for existing as the Church at all.
So the Church, by her very nature being evangelistic, must proclaim Christ to all, in season and out of season [II Tim.4:2]. How this is done, however, is another question altogether. One thing, though, is clear to me - that Orthodox evangelisation or mission is no set process but is, nevertheless, founded on two prime ideas, namely, the prompting of the Holy Spirit and secondly, the direction of the local bishop. With this in mind, I should like to explore just how in our current situation we, particularly as individuals, should approach the proclamation of Christ to those who have yet truly to encounter him.
Some naive sects imagine that the propagation of their message is to be done calling from door to door or, perhaps stranger still, haranguing passers-by in shopping arcades. The arrant silliness of this as a method within the present British culture is beyond comment, save for the result that one might delude the gullible and ill-educated or attract the desperate and unsophisticated. We might charitably assume that these people, though not possessing the pleroma (fullness) of Orthodoxy are, nonetheless, motivated by a desire to save souls. They are purporting, of course, to be thoroughly biblical, following the command of Christ to his own Apostles [St. Luke 10:1ff], as if the sacred text were here purporting to be a paradigm for all mission. They are, though, neglecting the context of Scripture, forgetting that we do not live in a commonly shared religious culture, generally speaking, nor are we first century Jews, oppressed by a foreign power and longing for the coming of the Messiah (albeit that there was no accepted consensus on what that meant at the time). The other problem is that our present culture has no place for street debate; it has no forum in the Roman sense – the scene has shifted, rather, to the Media which is not only, on the whole, under the control of the secular liberal consensus, but is also now fragmented into compartments of interest through the growth of consumer choice. There are religious channels but who watches or listens to them – the spiritually hungry or the converted? The street preachers can only appear as figures of ridicule, considered by most as shamelessly odd in their behaviour. Such disapprobation might well be thought, by the preachers concerned, as suffering ridicule for Christ’s sake but not when it tars the message with the same brush as is used on the messenger. And as for the doorstep evangelists, the least said about ‘cold-calling’ and doorstep salesmen the better. The various pseudo-Christian and heretical sects who disturb the householder’s peace, must in the end, consider the membership they succeed in attracting. To twist a phrase of Groucho Marx: would they want to join a club that would have someone like them as a member! Ninian Smart, remarking on the Jehovah’s Witnesses in his book, The Religious Experience of Mankind (1969) says that the movement, founded by the scandalous Charles Taze Russell (1821-1916) appeals to the modestly educated – clerks and landladies in England. It might sound snobbish but if that is the social limit of that particular heresy’s appeal, one would not wish to emulate their evangelistic methods let alone their bogus doctrines.
The point we must grasp is that our evangelisation is to a secular culture now, where religion, as a practice, has largely been forgotten and few understand the concept of salvation, let alone their need for it. Unlike the Jews in the Roman province of Judea who shared a common religious language, it is doubtful if many today appreciate the meaning of terms like Redeemer, Saviour, Grace or even Sin in the sense that they are used in Christianity. The Christian story itself has largely been lost, even as a shared cultural narrative. Even the very idea of identifying with a super-societal body, such as the Church, would be beyond most people’s conceptualisation.
This is far from saying that we live in a spiritual desert. In fact, the opposite is the case: it is a spiritual jungle, a supermarket of ideas from the bland to the bizarre yet ungoverned and un-marshalled through any religious conventions. Here, we must be honest and admit that most Britons are not only un-religious but often anti-religious. Religion for them has become a negative factor. Its decline in the public market place of ideas has largely been welcomed, freeing minds from its social constraints. As William Blake could write: And priests in black gowns were walking their rounds / And binding with briars my joys and desires [The Garden of Love]. Yet, they are left wondering, often with anxiety, whether a life of materialistic hedonism that must end in illness and death is, for the majority, the height of human endeavour. This is the setting for the Orthodox Church in this country and it is imperative that we understand this situation. In the past, Orthodox Christianity had all kinds of soils in which to grow and take root but here it must seem stony ground indeed (St. Luke 8:6).
So, ‘cold calling’, to use the current term, being of no use, how do we bring the gospel to others? We might not live in the days of the Apostles but we do share two things with them very specifically: their faith and tradition on the one hand and secondly, the gift of the Holy Spirit which they received at Pentecost. This is not just in an individual sense, (as when the catechumen is Chrismated [confirmed] following baptism in the Orthodox Church) but in the communal sense of coming through our bishop. As the one who distributes the Holy Myron to his priests, it is the local bishop who empowers and authorises the mission of the people of God. It is for him with his council to plan the strategy for his diocese, as also to bless and approve any undertakings by his clergy and laity. In the first place, therefore, all Orthodox mission must be in conformity with the mind of the bishop. This is the true Pentecostal harmony, as St. Ignatius of Antioch wrote to the Ephesians: ‘...being perfectly united in obedient submission to the bishop and the presbytery, you may be sanctified in all respects.’
At the episcopal level, we are concerned with the planting of churches and the establishment of worshipping communities which, by their very existence are missionary. The fact that each Lord’s Day the faithful gather to ‘proclaim the death of the Lord until he come,’ is testimony to the evangelistic nature of the Church; that she is apostolic according to the Nicene Creed. Each individual parish will, of course, develop its own modus operandi when it comes to spreading its fishing net. I am not so much concerned here with catechetical programmes and other means of drawing souls to Christ at the corporate level. Rather, my concern is more for our individual responsibility, where each Christian soul is an ambassador for Christ (2 Corinthians 5:20). There is a very simple covenantal arrangement here: if we ourselves desire salvation through reconciliation with God, we must share the opportunity with others, also. If we ponder our own experience – what has happened to and in us through the holy mysteries – what else are we supposed to be as Christian people, other than the evidence of what Christ can actually do, fulfilling the meaning and purpose of human lives?
In other words, the best way for you and me to evangelise our neighbour is not by preaching at them about things they do not understand [“Do not cast your pearls before swine….”] but, in the first place, by revealing Christ to them in our own lives. Orthodox Christians are naturally aware of the power of the saints; of how we see in their lives and in the effectiveness of their intercession with Christ, that it is through other people that Christ is proclaimed. It is not, in the first place, through the Bible, or Church institutions, or Liturgy (though these be all essential), but rather, it is through other human beings that evangelisation begins.
It is evident, therefore, that each one of us bears an awesome responsibility upon which we shall be judged. It is by the quality of our own Christian lives that others will be either drawn to or repulsed from the life in Christ. If the aim of our discipleship is to grow in sanctification, to emulate the saints, that purpose cannot be an end in itself, merely for our benefit. If we are to shine, it is not just to light up the chamber of our own heart but also to enlighten the path for others who dwell in darkness. Our evangelisation as Orthodox Christians begins, therefore, in the way we struggle to live a holy life: in the selfless nature of our charity; in our unwavering hope, fixed on the eternal realities that cannot disappoint; by our faith that carries us through our sufferings; in our peace, unsurprised and unruffled by the changes and chances of this fleeting world; through our virtues and morality, untainted by the febrile mores and tastes of the times; but first and foremost, in the spiritual nature of our lives, focused on and ambitious for the things of God, rather than attached to the world the flesh and finally, the devil.
The means to all this we have at our disposal – the Holy Mysteries, ascetic disciplines, prayer, good deeds. Together by the synergy of our own effort and struggle, they all revolve in a virtuous circle to bring us grace upon grace. Thus, in proportion, we acquire the Holy Spirit more and more. It might seem odd to talk of Him in these proportional metaphors but it is in the sense that He works to form Christ within us; to mould us, bit by bit, till we reach the measure of the stature of the fullness of Christ. (Eph4:13)
To the Orthodox mind - in the mind of Christ - the question of evangelisation is very straightforward: what does my unsaved neighbour see of Christ in me? The answers to what we should do may begin very simply and with basic remedies: faithful attendance at the Liturgy, regularity of repentance and confession, care over the ascetic struggle, the generosity of one’s giving. If we would change others, we must, firstly, change ourselves – removing the plank before removing the speck (Matthew 7:3). Quite bluntly, if we want others to hear the gospel, we must hear it ourselves, first! This is not a case of something that is best left with the hierarchy – essential as they be to this endeavour. Each one who claims membership of the Church born at Pentecost must be Pentecostal, that is, spiritual; each one who owns the Nicene Creed can only be apostolic, that is, founded on the apostles’ tradition and sent out with a mission.
There are those called to be evangelists. We have many examples of missionary saints within the Orthodox Church: S.S Cyril and Methodius, St. Nicholas of Japan, St. Nina of Georgia, St. Herman of Alaska, to name a few. There are those who, like St Constantine the Great, despite himself and the times he lived in, opened the door for the ‘Christening’ of a whole empire and became Isa-apostolos (equal to the apostles). Yet still for us in our place and in our day, in as much as we have acquired the Holy Spirit and have truly become Pentecostal Christians (in the real meaning of that term) we can, in the words of St. Seraphim of Sarov, ‘save thousands around us.’
In the gospel of the miraculous catch of fish (Luke 5) Peter, witnessing the superabundant grace of Christ, falls at his feet in repentance. Remembering that true repentance is a longing for what we might become, it is we, ourselves, having recovered the image of Christ and striving for the likeness of God, who will draw in those whom the Lord has called to inherit eternal life.