Fr. David C. Rucker
OCMC Mission Specialist
Therefore, since we have been given this ministry of loving others, because we have received unconditional love from God Himself, we do not lose heart. But we have renounced the hidden things of shame, not walking in craftiness nor handling the word of God deceitfully, but by manifestation of the truth commending ourselves to every man’s conscience in the sight of God. But even if our Gospel is veiled, it is veiled to those who are perishing, whose minds the god of this age has blinded, who do not believe, lest the light of the gospel of the glory of Christ, who is the image of God, should shine on them. For we do not preach ourselves, but Christ Jesus the Lord, and ourselves your bondservants for Jesus’ sake. … But we have this treasure in earthen vessels, that the excellence of the power may be of God and not of us. … For we who live are always delivered to death for Jesus’ sake, that the life of Jesus may be manifested in our mortal flesh. So then death is working in us, but life in you. — 2 Cor. 4:1-12
As an apostle (missionary), St. Paul was learning how to live and tell The Story of who God is and who we are created to become to a new generation, in a new culture, in a new location. That, by the way, is what Christian Orthodoxy is about: Who is God? Who am I? It is Truth and Reality in all its fullness. This is why the story is called “Gospel”, which means “good news.”
But the original context of the term “gospel” was not just “good news” in some generic, mild sense. It was fantastic, anxiously-awaited, life-changing and life-saving news! When a city or kingdom was being attacked by invading enemies, the people in the path of potential destruction would be waiting to hear if their king’s army had been able to defend and defeat those threatening them. If the message came that the enemy had been defeated, that meant a village would not be burned to the ground, that mothers, daughters and wives would not be raped, that sons would not be sold into slavery, and that men would not be brutally murdered. When the “gospel” arrived by emissary with the announcement of the king’s victory, this was the best news of a life-time!
If we are not living and sharing the Christian Gospel in a way that elicits this kind of response in people ready to receive “good news,” we ought to ask ourselves some hard questions. What news are people hearing and seeing from us? Have we resorted to a prepackaged presentation of the Gospel that disregards the hearer’s language and culture? Are we mistranslating the message either with our words or actions?
There is only one Story, the “never-changing Gospel.” The Good News is that we were meant to share in the divine Love and Communion of the Holy Trinity and that although communion is broken, it can be healed and harmony restored between us and our Creator, between us and other persons, and between us and creation. The closer any movie, book or person comes to telling or living The Story, the more it moves our hearts.
This is true for every people group in the world. All share a sense of failing to live up to the Ideal as understood in their society. In some cultures The Story has been virtually forgotten—the people have become blinded (the Piraha people of the Amazon might be an example, but the disillusioned Protestant missionary who attempted to translate the Bible with them might be an even better example), while others have kept parts of the story alive through oral tradition, with a longing for more (for example, the Santal of India, the Karen of Burma, the Lisu of China, and the Asmat of New Guinea).
But don’t look for one single method of telling The Story (proclaiming the Gospel). The methods are as varied as the people who share and the ones who hear. After all, the Good News is not a religion, philosophy or school of thought. The Good News begins with a personal encounter and ensuing relationship with Jesus Christ, Who is unconditional Love Incarnate. If we believe Jesus is The Way and The Truth and The Life, we can expect the Gospel to be lived and shared through each one of us in unique and unrepeatable ways that are just right for our own culture, language, and time in history. Culture and language are always changing, and so we change as well. We really do have this message “in jars of clay.” Contrary to what many think, Orthodox really do believe in “change.” After all, repentance (healing) means change!
St. Paul points out a common experience which is required of each person to effectively incarnate (live and tell) the Gospel to others. Each person must be “delivered to death for Jesus’ sake”, or, as he wrote in the first letter to the Corinthians, “…I die daily…” (15:31), and to the Galatians, “I have been crucified with Christ…” (2:20). The deep wounds of sin, death and the devil (broken communion, fear of never becoming a Person or genuine human being, and the constant accusations of the Liar and Deceiver) which are manifested in pride, self-love, and vain glory can only be healed by a violent death of all my rights and expectations. To believe in the Christ of the New Testament means nothing less than trusting my whole life and all I have and all I love to Him. I will only discover how much I have truly done this as those things I hold most dear are threatened or taken away. And it is in the middle of that pain and suffering, actually in death itself, that I become most like Christ and experience the Incarnation in my life. Those are also the times when the Good News will be proclaimed in my ever changing culture in the clearest, most authentic ways to people whom I have grown to love. Any motive other than the love of Christ is suspect, and can be quite dangerous to myself and others (2 Cor. 4:14).
We have recently celebrated the glorification of a number of our American saints, including St. Tikhon, Enlightener of North America and Moscow (9 Oct). After nine years of serving as the hierarch in America, and having assisted in raising up new hierarchs such as Innocent and Raphael, he was transferred to become the Metropolitan of Moscow, and as such, presided over the All Russia Council (1917-1918), in which the Patriarchate of Moscow was restored, more than two hundred years after Peter the Great abolished the position in 1700. The council members knew that whomever was elected would face tremendous challenges and persecution from the Bolsheviks. Revolution and civil war seemed inevitable. Metropolitan Tikhon’s name was drawn from the lots and during the service that immediately followed the Patriarch-elect declared: “From now on, my duty shall be to take care of all the churches of Russia and to die for their sake every day. May He who has called upon me grant me His divine help and His all-powerful blessings.”
Our calling and the cost to live out the never changing Gospel in an authentic, culturally accurate way is no less today. You might well be the only translation of Orthodox Christianity that one of your friends or acquaintances get to see or experience this week. Will your translation be Good News to them?