by Fr Gabriel-Allan Boyd
Can you imagine an entire city being transformed into followers of Jesus Christ? Wait! Let’s go even further. Can you imagine that happening in your own city? Try imagining, for a moment, entire countries embracing Orthodox Christianity. Historically, it’s happened before…and it’s happened a lot. In fact, it’s happened in places where there was far more hostility to Christianity than in Northern California. It’s happened in places where Christians were tortured and killed for their faith. It happened mostly through laypeople. Let this blow your mind for a few moments: There are some places in the world right now, where Christians are physically abused and murdered for practicing and sharing their faith. And in spite of the risk to their lives, they push everything aside to come together with other Christians at every opportunity to offer their worship to God and to learn more about Him…to truly make Him first in their lives. And for some reason, these followers of Jesus, with no theological degrees and with no classes on how to evangelize, and no formula on how that’s supposed to work, nevertheless, have imperiled—and continue to imperil—their own and their families’ lives to draw their friends and neighbors into an earthly experience of timeless truth. Every single day they risk everything to help fulfill that prayer that Jesus taught us to pray, “Thy Kingdom come, Thy will be done on earth as it is in Heaven.” Why would they do that?
Contrast that picture with this. Today, a significant number of Orthodox Christians I encounter, are repelled by the idea of sharing their own Christian faith with anyone. They can’t imagine that it’s within God’s power to transform their own friends and neighbors and co-workers into followers of Christ, no matter how much a part of Orthodox Christian history it is, nor how much Christ teaches that we are to make disciples, they outright reject the possibility that God wants them to join Him in helping to bring that about. When asked why, their answer is, “That just makes me feel uncomfortable.” Somehow, over the years, what once was the radical love of this transformative faith—where Christians truly took up their cross to follow Jesus—has become mutilated and distorted into something that’s only practiced when it’s easy and convenient for us. Somehow, Christianity became something that’s supposed to make us feel comfortable. How could we have become such a disfigured Christianity? How could we have let ourselves become so barren?
In this Sunday’s Gospel Reading (Luke 8:5-15), the Parable of the soils, Jesus tells the story of a farmer (God) whose seed is His Word. This farmer is rather aimless & indiscriminate with his precious seed, throwing it not just where he had plowed...but also in the rocks; on the hardened walking path; and in the thorns. God’s attitude in planting of His Son—the Word into every kind of heart is generous and unrestrained. In love, He lavishes it upon every single type of heart, whether it’s ready for Him or not. And as ones, whose hearts are being unified with Christ’s, what does it say about how indiscriminately we should be planting His Son—the Word into the lives of the people around us? So, as Christians, why don’t we care more about planting Jesus Christ Himself into the lives of the people around us everywhere? Why isn’t that at the heart of everything we do and say? In His parable of the soils, Jesus says that it’s because of our hearts. When we’re not being fruitful in our lives, it’s because our hearts have become like one or more of these soils. Regarding this need to make our faith comfortable, Jesus compares our hearts to the thorny soil. He says that, as soon as that seed begins to grow in us, it becomes choked out by our occupations and our pursuit of material possessions and the desire for comfort and convenience. Jesus says that if our hearts receive His Word like the good soil, and hold it so preciously that we obey it, that we’ll bear fruit up to a hundred times what was sown.
It’s not that we’re not supposed to have careers and not be able to buy nice things, but rather that our vocations should be filled with Him, ‘seeking first the Kingdom of God…and all these things will be added to you.’ In other words, whatever you put your mind to think upon, and whatever you put your hand to do, it should first be to bring about the Kingdom of God wherever you happen to be. The Lord’s will for His creation, that everything and everyone should be reconciled to Him, should be the foremost thing our life is about…filling our jobs and our relationships with the people around us.
In Iran recently, where the persecution of Christians by Muslims is exceptionally brutal, the Christian faith has been, nevertheless, growing remarkably (see video)…and people are trying to understand why. One church leader there observed:
“The seismic shift that’s happened in the church of Iran is, when all these church planters found out that converts run away from persecution, but disciples would die for the Lord in persecution. Disciples forsake the world and cling to Jesus ‘till He comes. Converts don’t. Disciples aren’t engaged in a culture war. Converts are. Disciples cherish, obey, and share the Word of God. Converts don’t. Disciples choose Jesus over anything and everything else. Converts don’t. Converts run when the fire comes. Disciples don’t.” Thus, the goal of missionaries there is not to make converts, but instead to build discipleship to Jesus Christ.
Throughout the Middle East, where Christians are cruelly attacked for practicing and sharing their faith, God continues to plant the seeds of His Son, the Word. Jesus is appearing to Islamic men and women in visions and dreams over and over again, teaching them the Gospel (see article). To one man, He appeared every night for months in a vision, having the man write down word for word what He recited to Him until the man fell asleep. The man finally described his experience to a Christian missionary he found, asking him to explain what it all meant. When the missionary asked the man to show him what he’d written, it said, “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. The same was in the beginning with God. All things were made by Him, and without Him was not anything made that was made…” It was the opening portion of the New Testament book of John. Jesus appeared to the man every night, dictating the entire book of John.
In the article, it becomes evident that the missionary this man sought out was Protestant, and that, after seeing multiple visions of Christ, this Middle Eastern man became Protestant. It begs the question, why would a man who’s just had a month’s worth of visions of Christ become Protestant? It’s a good question. I made a very long journey through Protestantism to Orthodoxy. And it was a messy journey. But God, in His grace, was faithful in leading me here. It reminds me of how messy the early Church was as it learned what it was like to be God’s faithful. It also makes me wonder about the implications of the way we refer to the Holy Spirit, “You who are everywhere present and filling all things.” Thus...I imagine that the man became a part of whatever church was there, working in that area. It actually begs another question, are there Orthodox there, willing to risk their lives, working to receive people into the Orthodox Church like the Protestants are willing to do with their church? ...and if not, then who has the greater sin? “‘I tell you,’ Jesus replied, ‘if they keep quiet, the very stones will cry out’” (Luke 19:40). “And do not suppose that you can say to yourselves, ‘We have *Chrysostom* for our father’; for I say to you that from these stones God is able to raise up children to *Chrysostom*” (Matthew 3:9). Are we Orthodox so arrogant, as virtual descendants of Chrysostom, to believe that if we abdicate our God-given role as participants in His mission, that He won’t do the same thing with us as He did with the Jews? Won’t His grace be poured out on anyone who’s willing, with faithful courage, to become His co-workers and ambassadors—fishers of men—even if their theology isn’t perfect? We should listen to John the Baptist’s warning to the Jews of his day, who had rejected God’s mission. “The axe is already at the root of the trees, and every tree that does not produce good fruit will be cut down and thrown into the fire” (Matthew 3:9). And the words of Jesus, Himself, “Whoever is ashamed of Me and My words, the Son of Man will be ashamed of them when He comes in His glory and in the glory of the Father and of the holy angels” (Luke 9:26).
Can you imagine your entire city being transformed into followers of Jesus Christ? Do you even hope that that will happen? Do you even bother to pray for it? Are you willing to unite yourself with God in faithfully planting His Son, the Word, into the lives of the people around you? If not, there’s a kind of heart disease going on that will require an operation. It’s time to weed out the thorns from your heart, that by God’s grace you can begin having a fruitful life.