For the Life of the World. Ye are Witnesses.
For the Life of the World
Ye are Witnesses
Fr John Parker
Chair, Department of Evangelization
Orthodox Church in America
Then Jesus said to them, “These are my words which I spoke to you, while I was still with you, that everything written about me in the law of Moses and the prophets and the psalms must be fulfilled.” Then he opened their minds to understand the scriptures, and said to them, “Thus it is written, that the Christ should suffer and on the third day rise from the dead, and that repentance and forgiveness of sins should be preached in his name to all nations, beginning from Jerusalem. You are witnesses of these things. And behold, I send the promise of my Father upon you; but stay in the city, until you are clothed with power from on high.”
Fr Alexander Schmemann’s timeless work, “For the Life of the World,” finishes with the chapter, “Ye are Witnesses of These Things.” In that powerful conclusion, he summarizes and sends. He summarizes the seductive and destructive power secularism (“living as if God did not exist”), and he sends his faithful reader “out” into the world, with a renewed vigor, enlivened by the Holy Spirit, to take his or her place on the salvific ship of souls, the Church. There, he or she must honor the Lord’s call in the vital Christian work: “witness”.
Fr Alexander argued that in his day, “witness” had either steered off course, or had simply redefined by the secular man as “the new and better course”. The former would today be called the “New Ecumenism”—the partnering of various “faith groups” including the Orthodox, to fight for “values” common to all of them; Fr Alexander names a few: “Ethics, concern for truth, human brotherhood and solidarity, justice, abnegation,” and the like. The latter would be the adoption of the secularist view, finished with a religious veneer, which offers not the Truth or even “more truth”, but rather some bland aim at “improvement”, “self-help”, or “making the world a better place.”
Has the Church, Fr Alexander implies by question in this final chapter, abandoned her primary vocation as martyr—as witness, as “witness to these things”? Have we taken the easy way, since Christianity is “a major world religion”, and squelched the Apostolic conviction that Orthodox Christianity is the only True Faith, that it is for all people?
Fr Alexander opens For the Life of the World clearly stating that he is not writing a “systematic theology”, and it is also clear in “Ye are Witnesses” that he is not writing a “how to” manual for evangelism. “There exist no answers in the form of practical ‘recipes’.” And yet we can, indeed, push reset in our own ecclesiastical life, return to the basic premise of the Gospel, and recommit ourselves to the vocation of The Faith that “once overcame the world”. We can today, re-commit ourselves to the vision of the Book of Acts, that life—accompanied by the divine power to accomplish it—to which our Lord called us, that missionary witness for which every Illumined Orthodox Christian is empowered by the Holy Spirit to bear, can we not?
Fr Alexander opened this chapter reminding us, “the Church is mission” and “to be mission is its very essence, its very life.” Archbishop Anastasios of Albania, in his own words, mimics Fr Alexander’s from so long ago, in the form of a question, “Can a church not engaged in this mission properly be called a church?” And for the sake of this essay, can we not personalize this: Can a Christian, not engaged in personal witness (“Go and tell…”) properly be called a Christian?
A mentor of mine, as a message for teaching biblical interpretation, taught us always, “whenever there is a ‘therefore’ in the Scriptures, you should always ask yourself, ‘what is the “therefore” there for?’” Similarly, in the passage from Luke’s Gospel, for which Fr Alexander’s seventh chapter is titled, we must also ask questions. If the title is “Ye are witnesses of these things…” then what are the “these” of “these things” of which we are witness?
Let’s begin apophatically, with what “these things” are not. “These things” are not “religious practices”, like fasting on certain days and hours. Fasting is indeed a vital spiritual medicine, but it is not an end in and of itself. God, for example, doesn’t need our fasting.
“These things” are not moralistic virtues, “common” to all religions, like “love” and “peace” and “kindness”. They are not religious rules—“thou shalts” and “thou shalt nots”. The apostles, Fr Alexander so capably argues, were not the traditioners of the newest and best self-help program. “Be nice” is not a summary of the Gospel. Remember—as I heard once from Fr Stephen Freeman—“Jesus didn’t come to make bad men better; he came to make dead men live.”
Here are the words of Jesus Christ to which “these things” refer:
“Thus it is written, that the Christ should suffer and on the third day rise from the dead, and that repentance and forgiveness of sins should be preached in his name to all nations, beginning from Jerusalem” (Luke 24:47).
“These things” are: The Cross and Resurrection, and Repentance and Forgiveness.
There is not an Orthodox Christian on the planet—including those who only annually dip a toe into the waters of the Church on Pascha or the Nativity—who does not have a personal testimony as summarized in our beautiful paschal hymn:
Having beheld the Resurrection of Christ, let us worship the holy Lord Jesus, the only sinless one! We venerate Thy Cross, O Christ, and we praise and glorify Thy Holy Resurrection! For Thou art our God, and we know no other than Thee! We call on Thy Name; come, all ye faithful: let us venerated Christ’s Holy Resurrection, for having endured the Cross for us, He has destroyed death by death! Jesus has risen from the Tomb, as He foretold—granting us eternal life, and great mercy!
Everyone who has even one time shouted, “Christ is Risen!” or replied, “Indeed He is risen!” makes this witness in the Church, and is both capable, and called, to do so to the world.
The Paschal Sundays are devoted to all sorts of witnesses: Ones who were first witnesses of the Resurrection—the Myrrhbearing Women; ones who saw and believed-the disciples); one who doubted and believed—Thomas .
The Paralytic, 38 years by the poolside, also bore witness, though not to the Resurrection, but rather to the Jews who asked, for Jesus having healed him by a word only; the Samaritan Woman also bore witness to Jesus, first in the form of a question, “Could this be the Christ?”, and second by her testimony: “come see a man who told me all things that I ever did!”; as did the Blind Man, by his question, “who is he sir, that I might believe in Him?” and by his response, “Yes, Lord, I believe!”
The “faith that once overcame the world” is not a set of rules. Neither is it a conglomeration of religious principles. It is not a self-help program; it is not the quest for an earthly utopia.
The “faith that once overcame the world” is a conviction about a person: Jesus Christ—that he is Savior and Redeemer, that He was crucified and was buried. That He descended to the dead and freed death’s captives. That He arose on the third day. That He ascended to heaven, whence He will come again to judge the living and the dead.
The Christian Conviction—“I believe this is the Christ!”—is borne of a three-chambered font. The first issues forth from those faithful witnesses who beheld Jesus, risen from the tomb with their own eyes. We could call this “dogmatic witness”. The second emerges from those have heard from others—like the Samaritans who hear from the Samaritan Woman—and had their lives changed as a result. We could call this “second hand” witness. The third proceeds from one’s self, like those from the Samaritan Woman’s town, who eventually believed not only because of Photini’s witness, but because of their own encounter with Jesus. This is, by definition, “personal”.
Even the most nominal of Orthodox Christians “is a witness to these things.” He has beheld the crucifixion—on Holy Friday. She has see the empty Tomb on Pascha. The Lord has, in some way worked, noticeably in his or her life.
The question before me, before you is: what will you do with that encounter? You could keep it to yourself. You could ignore it. You could be struck dumb by it. Or you could share it.
If you keep it to yourself, you show yourself an ungrateful servant and further disobey the Lord, who commands, “Go home and tell all the Good God has done for you.” How could you expect to be “entrusted with much” from the Lord, when, with the talent given, you have buried it?
If you ignore your encounter with Jesus, you become the very secularist Fr Alexander devoted his life to exposing--one who lives his life “as if God does not exist”. Ironically, this secularist almost always, later, winds up trying to bargain with God under the most trying of circumstances: “Lord, if you’ll just…, then I’ll….”—reducing the Lord to a religious talisman or a divine ATM machine—the very sort of “dead religion” that was buried with Christ in the tomb.
This same bargainer, not understanding the very nature of the Lord with whom he is trying to bargain, often also makes himself to be a liar. Being delivered miraculously from his horrible circumstance, in a grace-filled God-moment, he becomes like nine of the ten cleansed lepers, and goes back to “business as usual” without any further consideration for what God has done for him.
It is possible to be struck dumb by one’s encounter with Jesus Christ—at least temporarily. Was this not the case with Saul? He was blinded for three days, and then by God’s goodness, burst forth from his darkness, having seen the light, and became the Apostle of the Apostles. Was this not also the case with the first Apostles—the Myrrhbearers—who “said nothing to anyone, for they were afraid”? Eventually, though, joy and excitement must overcome fear: Christ is Risen!
The last option is our calling: to be witnesses of the Christ. He has shown Himself to be the Son of the Living God, who came into the world to save sinners, of whom we each dare to profess, “I am first”. And he sends us out—to Jerusalem, Judea, Samaria, and the ends of the earth—to your home, your town, your nation, to the world!
Think of it: the Myrrhbearers bore witness. The Paralytic bore witness. The Samaritan Woman bore witness. The Blind Man bore witness. The Apostles bore witness.
If Barnabas and Paul hadn’t, there’d be no Christian in Antioch. If James hadn’t, there’d be no Christian in Spain. If Philip hadn’t, there’d be no Christian in Ethiopia. If Cyril and Methodius hadn’t, there’d be no Christian in the Slavic Lands. If Herman hadn’t, there’d be no Christian in Alaska. If your parents or godparents or priest hadn’t borne witness, you wouldn’t be a Christian. Could you really just keep it to yourself or ignore it, and let the Good News die not just on the Cross, but on the vine, too?
No—The Lord is saving you! He is blessing you. He has granted you to see Him face to face! He fills you with joy!
And this joy must transform all your human plans and programs, your goals and dreams, your decisions and actions, making “your mission the sacrament of the world’s return to Jesus Christ, the Savior, who is the life of the world.”
Priest John Parker
Chair, Department of Evangelization, Orthodox Church in America
Rector, Holy Ascension Orthodox Church, Mount Pleasant, South Carolina
Feast of the Holy Ascension, May 17, 2018