Can I Get A Witness?

by Fr Gabriel-Allan Boyd

This is the 5th in a 6-part series of articles on, “What Does It Mean To Be The Church?” Here, we’ll explore the fourth characteristic, “The Church offers a WITNESS of Christ.”

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Can you imagine having a friend who rejected some natural part of their self… like insisting that their right arm wasn’t really a part of their body? Imagine them wishing that their right arm wasn’t there. Imagine seeing them trying to do normal, everyday tasks with a perfectly good right arm always merely hanging limp at their side…withering and weakening every day from lack of use. You might feel a sense of sadness for a friend like that, recognizing immediately that they were experiencing a type of mental illness, because rejecting a part of themselves that could be a source of great blessing to them just isn’t normal. We should also feel a sense of sadness for those Orthodox Christians who reject the natural part of themselves that should be unified with the Holy Trinity’s outreach of love. To be unified with Jesus Christ in His mission to our neighbors should be understood as a source of great blessing. To separate ourselves from that relationship with God’s love for our neighbor is an act of spiritual illness from which we should seek healing. By God’s grace, we must seek to grow in this act of love…which is so elemental to who we are in Christ. Archbishop Anastasios of Albania describes that loving mission as “part of the very DNA of the Church’s genetic makeup.” He goes on to portray it this way: 

The question of the motive of mission can be studied from several angles: love of God and men, obedience to the Great Command of the Lord, desire for the salvation of souls, longing for God’s glory. All these surely, are serious motives. However, we think that the real motive of mission, for both the individual and the Church, is something deeper. It is not simply obedience, duty or altruism. Mission is an inner necessity for the faithful and for the Church. If they refuse it, they do not merely omit a duty, they deny themselves.” ~ Archbishop Anastasios of Albania, The Purpose and Motive of Mission: from an Orthodox Theological Point of View

Over and over again, the witness of the scriptures attests to this. “The fruit of the righteous is a tree of life, and he who wins souls is wise” (Proverbs 11:30). “Then the master said to the servant, ‘Go out into the highways and hedges, and compel them to come in, that my house may be filled’” (Luke 14:23). “Go therefore and 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 observe all things that I have commanded you” (Matthew 28:19-20). The earliest Christians whose lives were touched by Christ confirm this as a most natural act of love. “Many of the Samaritans from that town believed in Him because of the woman’s testimony” (John 4:39). The book of Acts, exhibiting the lives of people in the early Church, illustrates this as a natural expression of every Christian’s life. “When Aquila and Priscilla had heard, they took him [Apollos] aside with them, and explained the way of God more perfectly to him” (Acts 18:26). Over and over again, the Holy Tradition of the Church confirms this as the Church’s way of being. “We are called to keep the faith, but we are not called to keep it to ourselves” (St. Spyridon). “But why is Jesus not satisfied when someone merely has their faith in their mind, but doesn’t confess it to others with their mouth?  It’s because Jesus wishes to train us up to boldness in speech…and to more abundant love and determination…and to raise us on high.  Jesus is addressing Himself to *all* people who would become His disciples, not just to the disciples standing in front of Him.  Because whoever has learned this lesson will not only teach others with boldness… but will likewise also be strengthened by God’s grace to suffer martyrdom readily and resolutely as Christ’s witnesses” (St John Chrysostom in his sermon on Matthew 10:32). And over and over again, the Church continues to reiterate the need to be this natural expression of ourselves. “Mission will always remain the central ecclesiastical matter; an expression of the life and vitality of the Church. Unthinkable as it is to have a Church without liturgical life, it would be even more unthinkable to have a Church without missionary life” (Archbishop Anastasios of Albania). “An urgent need exists in Orthodox parishes in the United States for a much stronger emphasis on evangelization and outreach” (Assembly of Canonical Orthodox Bishops of the United States). As well, the recently held council of bishops and clergy from all over the world were intensely clear about this effort coming from Orthodox faithful. “The apostolic work and the proclamation of the Gospel, also known as mission, belong at the core of the Church’s identity, as the keeping and observation of Christ’s commandment: “Go and make disciples of all nations” (Matt 28.19). This is the “breath of life” that the Church breathes into human society and makes the world into Church through the newly-established local Churches everywhere. In this spirit, the Orthodox faithful are and ought to be Christ’s apostles in the world” (Great & Holy Council in Crete, 2016).

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In the history of the Church, it’s always been largely the Orthodox faithful (the laity) who drew people to the Kingdom of heaven through their faithful witness. The same remains true today, where 86% of the people who begin attending a church, do so because laypeople invited them. (Keep in mind, this doesn’t mean that 86% of the people you invite will begin attending…but rather, 86% of the people who do begin attending, do so, simply because they were invited by a friend.) The evangelization of those who have not yet come to know Christ—a truthful witness to the renewal of all things in Christ (2 Corinthians 5:17)—is the unceasing role of the Church and in fact what it means for us to be the Church. 

So, finally, let’s briefly mention here the number one fear of Orthodox Christians regarding sharing our faith with others. More than anything, Orthodox Christians express a fear that they might say the wrong thing…that they might be imprecise in their descriptions of their faith to their neighbors and co-workers. Of course, we are right to want to communicate our faith clearly to people around us. And we should put forth an effort to become educated, always growing in our ability to give a good reason for why we believe what we believe. In his 1st letter to the Church, the Apostle Peter (3:15) offers an important piece of advice. He says, “But in your hearts, setting Christ apart as Lord (so that He has first place in your lives) always be ready to give a reasonable defense to anyone who asks you to account for the hope that is in you…yet do it with gentleness and respect.”  

Honestly, it’s a pretty safe bet that there will be times when you will make some mistakes in giving those reasons. God knows that there have been many times in my life that I have been less precise than desirable. But something amazing happens when you offer from the love in your heart to those around you. God, somehow, honors your loving efforts and the Holy Spirit uses your love to do His ministry. It’s simply not possible that an imprecise offering of your love can create a problem that God can’t recover and turn back aright for His sake. There’s no reason to fear, because your imprecision isn’t beyond God’s power to do His loving work there. You’re just not that powerful. So, are you ready to be the Church? Each of us can begin by simply talking to our friends, neighbors and colleagues about what Jesus Christ means to us personally—offering a witness of Him. The Orthodox understanding of who Jesus is, is very different than what most Christian denominations believe about Him. Begin with who Jesus Christ is, and what He can mean for your friends in their own lives! Once you’ve begun that conversation with your friends, then invite them to Church. Now you’re on your way to being the Church.