In Matthew 4:18-20 we read, “As Jesus was walking beside the Sea of Galilee, he saw two brothers, Simon called Peter and his brother Andrew. They were casting a net into the lake, for were fishermen. ‘Come, follow me,’ Jesus said ‘and I will make you fishers of men.’ At once they left their nets and followed him” (NIV).
The mission of Jesus to preach, teach and heal which began in Galilee some 2,000 years ago is now the responsibility and the mission of the Church. As Orthodox Christians we often emphasize, and correctly so, that worship is at the heart of the Church. But worship without witness or martyria is dead. Our liturgical life, to be pleasing to God, must bring rebirth. We must become saturated in and nourished by Christ to the extent that we too, like those eager fishermen become compelled to go out into the world and expectantly proclaim the gospel, teach the world about Jesus, and participate in life-giving healing. Fr. Alexander Schmemann once remarked, “Every Christian is called to be a missionary. Every Christian is sent. When we say ‘One, Holy, Catholic and Apostolic Church,’ the term ‘apostolic’ means not only the continuity of the ministry, as so many people seem to think, but also the apostolicity, i.e. the missionary nature of the Church and of each of her members ... . One cannot be saved without giving oneself to this mission. Everyone is a missionary.”
When we read about Christ’s commission to the Twelve, we tend to see them as the greatest generation of the Church, that small group who went on to lay the foundation of the Church by spreading His message of transformation and the good news of God’s Kingdom. Yet these twelve men were nothing more than an insignificant, obscure ragtag group. They were everyday people, like you and I; disciples who had been called to bring the Kingdom of God to an alien and hostile world. They too had families and businesses, but they immediately left everything behind, including livelihood and home, and followed Jesus. They risked everything on Christ and became Kingdom workers instead. God calls each of us to preach good news to the poor, heal the heartbroken and comfort all who mourn. When Christ calls we must obey, because his kingdom demands unqualified obedience. Those early disciples of Jesus were ordinary fishermen who went on and performed extraordinary evangelism because they obeyed and followed Jesus. Whenever they relied on him, their catch was always overwhelming. Are we not called to do the same? I know we all feel inadequate, embarrassed and afraid. But so did those first fishermen. And despite their failings God still used them to do amazing work. We should never overestimate our own abilities nor underestimate our role in God’s mission. Besides, God works best with those who are weak.
It is through our weakness that we die to our own self-importance and self-reliance. We can do nothing apart from Christ. Our love for God and for those He created must drive us to bring everyone to experience the glory of knowing Him. We need to pray for the day when we can say with one voice, ‘woe is me if I do not preach the gospel.’ Unfortunately, right now we cannot say with Christ that ‘this is a time for testimony’ because we are too busy playing it safe. It isn’t enough for us to just be keepers of the aquarium; we need to be fishers of men and women. How many times have we risked preaching the gospel in unpleasant and dangerous situations? Not many, if I look at my own experience. But have you ever noticed how so many of the miracles that we read about in the Book of Acts are connected to the preaching of the gospel? This is probably why we no longer see miracles today. Spreading the gospel no longer inconveniences us. We have stopped proclaiming the good news of the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ and the great miracle that this is for us. And so I think our lives don’t feel Christian anymore because we have forgotten that the Christian life is a miracle!
Blessed are those who weep
You know, one of the saddest failures of our Church is our inability to cry over all those in the world who do not know Christ. There is a chasm between what we say we believe and the corresponding passion in our lives for this very truth. The Orthodox Church has the right doctrine and the true faith, but I’m afraid we lack the thunder, the fear, the love and the joy that should be reflected in our lives. Perhaps this is why the awesome love of God no longer shines in our lives. Maybe this is why the radical good news of the gospel message has all but shriveled up in our hearts. I don’t think we care to throw our nets out anymore.
But when we read about the ‘poor in spirit’ in the Sermon on the Mount, this is whom Christ was talking about, the ones who understand the tragedy of a world alienated from God and who want to do something about it. It is about those who have made it their purpose to tell everyone about Jesus Christ and who accept to bear the burden that God bears: that is, the burden for the salvation of the world. But we can’t do this on our own. We need to pray to God to make us love him (Deuteronomy 30:6). We have to fight everyday to live our lives in the presence of God, in worshipful sacrifice and self-denial otherwise it becomes so easy for us to slip into becoming like the people of the third soil—“where the worries of the world, and the deceitfulness of riches, and the desires for other things enter in and choke the word, and it becomes unfruitful" (Mark 4:19 NASB). So what can we do? I think that trying to remember the lives of all those great disciples throughout the centuries, people like the apostle Paul, can help us break out from our insecurity and comfort zone.
The apostle Paul had led an incredibly stressful life. He endured awful physical pain through beatings and lashings. He went hungry and sleepless, constantly on the move and constantly in danger. Then there was the daily pressure of concern for the churches. And in all of it Paul saw this deep pain as momentary. Why? Because all Paul saw were people who did not know Christ. And it was this anxious urgency that compelled him to keep moving, to keep preaching and to keep fishing for the lives of men and women. Paul loved God and he loved all those created in the image of God. We on the other hand, I’m afraid, no longer shed any tears for those who are lost in the world. This is why the words of St. John Chrysostom ring fearfully true: “nothing is more frigid than a Christian who does not seek to save others ... . How can such a person be a Christian? Do not say; it is impossible for me to influence others. If you are a Christian, it is impossible for this not to happen.”
If we want to live like true disciples of Jesus, then we need to be reminded of Paul’s words to the ancient church at Corinth: “as God’s partners, we beg you not to accept this marvelous gift of God’s kindness and then ignore it. For God says, ‘at just the right time, I heard you. On the day of salvation, I helped you.’ Indeed, the ‘right’ time is now. Today is the day of salvation. We live in such a way that no one will stumble because of us, and no one will find fault with our ministry. In everything we do, we show that we are true ministers of God. We patiently endure hardships and calamities of every kind. We have been beaten, been put in prison, faced angry mobs, worked to exhaustion, endured sleepless nights, and gone without food. We prove ourselves by our purity, our understanding, our patience, our kindness, by the Holy Spirit within us, and by our sincere love. We faithfully preach the truth. God’s power is working in us ... . We serve God whether people honor us or despise us, whether they slander us or praise us. We are honest, but they call us imposters. We are ignored, even though we are well known. We live close to death, but we are still alive. We have been beaten, but we have not been killed. Our hearts ache, but we always have joy. We are poor, but we give spiritual gifts to others. We own nothing, and yet we have everything” (2 Corinthians 6:4-10 NLT). Can we change our priorities and desires, both personally and in our families, to display just a little of this kind of Christian living--this kind of Christian mission?
Christ’s teaching is hard and demanding, but let us stop loving the gifts of God and instead start falling in love with God. Let’s move away from seeing Jesus Christ only as a blessing machine, there to give us what we want. He is el saddai, the Lord, who calls us to submit to Him and to do our part in carrying His mission to the world. Let each of us--bishops and plumbers, business people and housewives-- make it the priority of our lives to join with Jesus Christ to bring light to the darkness and the good news of life in God’s kingdom.
Jesus was crushed on the cross for our sins. The starting place for our Christian lives will be when we too are crushed and brought down to our knees in fear and trembling, because of the fiery holiness of God, just like Moses did. And the starting place for the Church’s mission is when we once again weep for a world that is lost apart from God. Only when we begin our mission here, will we become holy--holy before God so that our holiness becomes contagious to all the nations.
John Kapsalis is a graduate of Holy Cross Seminary.